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The ‘Free Spirit’ in Revolutionary Britain: Part I – Seekers, Ranters & Quakers in the Civil Wars & Interregnum, 1647-1657.   Leave a comment

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Prophesying the Millennium:

Until 1957, historians had maintained that we could know very little of the real beliefs of the ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit’ or ‘Spiritual Libertines’, since the information we did have came from their enemies. They were accused as regarding themselves as divine beings and of holding that they could, therefore, commit murder, robbery and fornication without sin. But, as Norman Cohn pointed out in the appendix to his iconic book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, published that year, the ‘scandalous tales told of them’ were ‘merely conscious or unconscious slanders’. These were accusations which were made against mystical groups of the later middle ages, but they could not be checked in any detail against their own writings. To do that, Cohn looked into the brief but hectic revival of the ‘Free Spirit’ which took place in England during and after the Civil War. 

Like the writings of their predecessors, those of the ‘Ranters’ of the later period were ordered to be burnt. But it was much harder to destroy a whole production of a work than a few manuscripts, and stray copies of Ranter tracts survived. Viewed as historical documents, these tracts have established that the ‘Free Spirit’ really was exactly what it was said to be: a system of self-exaltation amounting to self-deification; a pursuit to of total emancipation which in practice could result in an anarchic eroticism; often also a revolutionary social doctrine which denounced the institution of private property and aimed at its abolition. But the interest of the Ranter literature is not only historical. If the stylistic idiosyncrasies of Abiezer Coppe were sufficiently vigorous and colourful to earn him an honourable place in the gallery of literary eccentrics, Joseph Salmon deserves recognition as a writer of real poetic power.

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Thanks to the work which has been done on the radical religious ideas of Cromwell’s England, not least by Christopher Hill, in his 1972 book, The World Turned Upside Down, there is now no lack of information concerning the social milieu in which the Ranters flourished. Indeed, this author was counselled by his tutors not to pursue research for his PhD on this period on the basis that he would probably have to limit himself to the study of an obscure sect. It was only some years later that I returned it to investigate the Independent puritan enthusiasm which ran high among the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army and among civilians, and that neither the Episcopalian establishment nor the Presbyterian puritans were able to channel the flood of lay religiosity. Many felt that the time had come when God had when God was pouring out his Spirit on all flesh. Ecstasies were everyday occurrences, prophecies were uttered in many quarters, and millennial hopes were rife throughout the population. Cromwell himself, especially before he came to power as Lord General and then Lord Protector, was also moved by such hopes. Thousands of artisans in London and elsewhere lived in daily expectation that through the violence of the civil war the Kingdom of the Saints would be established on English soil and that Christ would return to rule over it.

In the late 1640s, the Quakers were often referred to as ‘Roundhead rogues’, and in May 1648 the ‘Digger’ pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley made it clear that the word ‘Roundhead’ was used especially as a slur on the political radicals in the New Model. Edward Burrough was mocked as a Roundhead even in his pre-Quaker days. But it appears to have been used mainly in reference to political radicalism, and it was only during the intense period of political instability and uncertainty which followed the execution of the King and ended with the establishment of the Protectorate in 1653. In 1649-50, Winstanley was moved by supernatural illumination to found the ‘Digger’ community near Cobham in Surrey. Convinced that the old world was ‘running up like parchment in the fire, and wearing away’, Winstanley attempted to restore mankind to its ‘Virgin-state’, a primitivist utopian commune in which private property, class distinction and human authority would have no place. At the same time, groups of religious enthusiasts multiplied rapidly. As one pamphleteer remarked in 1651,

… it is no new work of Satan to sow Heresies, and breed Heretickes, but they never came up so thick as in these latter times: They were wont to peep up one and one, but now they sprout out by huddles and clusters (like locusts out of the bottomlesse pit). They now come thronging upon us in swarmes, as the Caterpillars of Aegypt.

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‘High Professors’ & Heretics:

The heresy which this writer had particularly in mind was that of the Ranters. These people, who were also known as ‘high attainers’ and ‘high professors’, became very numerous about 1650. Some were to be found in the Army, where there were cases of officers being cashiered and publicly whipped, and of a soldier being whipped through the City of London ‘for ranting’. There were also groups of Ranters scattered throughout the country. Above all, they abounded in London, where they numbered many thousands. The first Quakers – George Fox (above), James Nayler and their followers – often came into contact with the Ranters. Hostile observers such as Episcopalians or Presbyterians, often deliberately conflated Quakerism with the Ranters; for both alike discarded the outward forms of religion and saw true religion only in the ‘indwelling spirit’ in the individual soul. The Quakers themselves, however, regarded the Ranters as erring souls to be converted. George Fox has a curious passage about his first meeting with Ranters, in prison in Coventry in 1649. He later wrote:

When I came into the jail, where these prisoners were, a great power of darkness struck at me, and I sat still, having my spirit gathered into the love of God. At last these prisoners began to rant, and vapour, and blaspheme, at which my soul was greatly grieved. They said they were God; but that we could not bear such things. … Then seeing they said they were God, I asked them, if they knew whether it would rain tomorrow? They said they could not tell. I told them, God could tell. … After I had reproved them for their blasphemous expressions, I went away; for I perceived they were Ranters.

Amongst the Ranters whom George Fox found in the prison at Coventry was Joseph Salmon who had recently left the Army.  Not long after his encounter with Fox, Salmon put forth a paper or book of recantation; upon which they were set at liberty. From 1650, Salmon was for some years a minister in Kent, preaching frequently in Rochester Cathedral. One of his works was a Ranter tract, Divinity Anatomised, which has been lost, but others, including the Recantation, survive to reveal a very considerable poetic talent. The first time we know of George Fox coming to the notice of authority was earlier in the same year of his Ranter encounter when he was imprisoned at Nottingham. This was, of course, a crucial year in the history of the English Civil Wars, the year in which King Charles was tried by Parliament and executed, and the beginning of the Presbyterian attempt to impose its rigid Calvinist discipline and morality by legislation on the English people, as it had succeeded in Scotland.

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There were radical political movements among the ordinary people, such as the Levellers, led by John Lilburne (pictured below), who later joined the Quaker movement, and the True Levellers, or ‘Diggers’, for whom GerrFenny Drayton

ard Winstanley was chief pamphleteer. The scientific revolution of ideas had not yet spread, but the revolution in religious thought which had produced the Continental Protestant Reformation had led to the establishment of a Commonwealth in Britain which was a place and time of extreme and independent views, bitter controversy, and uncertainty about the nature of religious authority. Many groups of people had been expelled from, or abandoned by, the established Anglican churches, or had withdrawn themselves from them; they were generally known as ‘Seekers’ because they waited for a new revelation of God’s truth. The religious persecutions of the previous century, in particular, the Marian burnings were still strong in the memories of such people, and if they need to be reminded of those sufferings, they had Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to remind them, with its graphic illustrations of the martyrdoms.

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George Fox stood out as a striking and unexpected figure. He was twenty-five, long-haired (unlike the ‘Roundheads’), peasant-featured and astute. He hailed from the village of Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire, in the corner of the East Midlands and East Anglia which formed the stronghold of radical religious independents. There he had been working as an apprentice to a dealer in fleeces and hides and worked as a shepherd. He was semi-literate, most of his later letters being dictated to others. Leaving home at the age of nineteen to become an itinerate seeker, he found no teacher who could assure him of the truth until, in 1647, as he wrote in his Journal, he heard a voice saying to him, There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition. At this time, William Dell and many other ‘Familists’ believed that academic education was no help in understanding the Scriptures. From 1646 onwards books by Henry Niclaes and man other Familist and Antinomian writers were being published. There were also tendencies even among orthodox Puritans which pointed in the same direction. William Erbery, the Welsh Baptist was one of those who wrote of the ‘free grace’ which came through the preaching of Preston and Sibbes. John Preston taught that the ‘elect’ knew by their own experience that the Bible was true and that God was:

 … as he is described in the Scripture such have they found him to be to themselves. …

Richard Sibbes declared that If God be a father, then we are brethren, it is a levelling word. Tobias Crisp held that sin is finished  and that:

If you be freemen in Christ, you may esteem all the curses of the law as no more concerning you than the laws of of England concern Spain. … To be called a libertine is the most glorious title under heaven.

Allegorical writing of this sort was harmless enough in time of social peace, though the ecclesiastical authorities were never happy about it. It became dangerous in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1640s Kiddermindstewhen some of the lower classes began to take it literally. The doctrines were also harmless in the period following the Restoration when taught by Thomas Traherne. But in between times, the Revolution seemed to stir up infinite possibilities and inflamed the passions of the poor. If the majority in a congregation should excommunicate their pastor, no synod could do anything about it. From this time onwards we get plentiful evidence of the emergence of a whole number of opinions which later became associated with the Ranters. Thomas Edwards reported many sectaries who said Christ died for all and a bricklayer from Hackney who said that Christ was not God, or at least that he was as much God as Christ was. A Rochester man who associated with Baptists said that Jesus Christ was a bastard; so did Jane Stratton of Southwark. Some sectaries held that God his children as well sinning as praying; others held that they cannot sin, but if they sin, Christ sins in them. Other ‘errors’ recorded by Edwards were that God is in our flesh as much as in Christ’s flesh and that all shall be saved at last. A pamphlet of 1648 argued that if a man were strongly moved to sin, after praying repeatedly, he should do it.

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Anthony Pearson reported that many apprentices and young people joined the Ranters in the late 1640s, and Richard Baxter, the Kidderminster pastor claimed that Quakers emptied the churches of Anabaptists and separatists of ‘the young, unsettled’. We think of refusal of ‘hat honour’ and the use of ‘thou’ by Quakers as gestures of social protest, but they also marked a growing refusal of deference from the young to the old, from sons to fathers. Fierce battles were fought in the home, between generations. The preachers of free grace, including William Erbery and William Dell, aimed to liberate men and women simpler and less theologically sophisticated, especially in this time of revolutionary crisis, their teachings were easily pushed over into Antinomianism, a sense of liberation from all bonds and restraints of law and morality. When Thomas Collier told the Army at the end of September 1647 that God as truly manifests Himself in the flesh of all his saints as he did in Christ, he must have known that many of the rank and file listening to him would believe themselves to be saints.

068Again and again, in spiritual autobiographies of the time, we read of men who passed through Presbyterianism, Independency and Anabaptism before ending as Seekers, Ranters or Quakers. Controversies over church government or over baptism split congregations, producing conscientious scruples and endless bickerings. Since they believed that the end of the world was probably near anyway, a resigned withdrawal from sectarian controversies was one solution, a rejection of all sects, and of all organised worship. Such men were called Seekers and included William Walwyn, John Saltmarsh, John Milton (right) and possibly Oliver Cromwell himself.

Radical Independents – The ‘Seekers’:

Many of these men had connections with the radicals and were bitterly disappointed with the failure of the Army to bring about a democratic society in and after 1647. Whatever their disillusionment, the generation of the 1640s was carried along by millenarian enthusiasm. But by the 1650s, Richard Baxter felt that:

When people saw diversity of sects in any place … it greatly hindered their conversion. (Many) would be of no religion at all.

William Erbery was described in 1646 as the champion of the Seekers. He had been ejected from his living in Cardiff in 1638 for refusing to implement Laudian liturgy. He was a convinced supporter of Parliament during the civil war, becoming a chaplain in the New Model Army. As such, Erbery led other ranks in criticism of Presbyterian ministers, tithes and persecution. He preached universal redemption and, according to Edwards, denied the divinity of Christ, as well as declaring that any layman may preach. Erbery modestly saw himself …

… bewildered as a wayfaring man, seeing no way of man on earth, nor beaten path to lead him. Let him look upward and within at once, and a highway, the way is found in Christ in us, God in our flesh. … God comes reigning and riding on an ass, that is revealing himself in the basest of men.

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The Presbyterian ministers sent to investigate the Army said that Erbery was a ‘Socinian’, preaching damnable doctrine and blasphemous errors. He stirred up ‘the multitude of soldiers’, they claimed, against the Presbyterian ministers. In January 1648, Erbery called upon the Army to destroy the power of the King and rectify popular grievances. He objected to the officers’ version of the Agreement of the People because it established a state church and did not extend toleration to the Jews, though he approved of most of it. King and Parliament, he thought, …

… were the two powers who kept the people of the Lord and the people of the land from their expected and promised freedoms. (The Army) had the call of the kingdom, petitioning by several counties and the common cry of all the oppressed in the land (acting) in the immediate power of God … for all saints, yea for all men also. God in the saints shall appear as the saviour of all men. No oppressor shall pass through them any more. The day of God has begun, though the saints have been and are still in confusion. For a few days we cannot bear with the want of kings and rulers, …

The saints drew back when they should have gone forward since the Army was at its best when it acted. Erbery still wanted to see God in the army of saints, wasting all oppressing powers in the land. In July 1652, Erbery wrote urging Oliver Cromwell to relieve the poor, as well as attacking tithes and lawyers’ fees. He advocated steeper taxation of rich citizens, racking landlords … and mighty moneyed men … to form a treasury for the poor. He wrote that the burden of tithes on them in England at that time was greater than under popery or in popish countries. There were no longer any ‘true ministers’ and God, in the last days, would not appear in ministers at all, but in magistrates, both civil and martial. The apostasy of the churches had prevailed for centuries. When kingdoms had first become Christian, he claimed, they had become churches, and national churches began. But then also Antichrist came to be great and Popery, prelacy, presbytery were ‘the three beasts’. The state Church of the Commonwealth in England was no better than the Episcopal Church. It was the last ‘Beast’ or church-state. In the depth of his disillusion, Erbery declared that:

The mystery of Anti-Christ … is manifested in every saint, in every particular church …  The greatest work that God hath to do with you this day, is to make you see you are dead. God is going out and departing from all the preaching of men, that men may give themselves wholly to public acts of love to one another, and to all mankind; therefore all religious forms shall fall, that the power of righteousness may rise and appear in all.

But once in power, the ‘seeming saints’ would inevitably be corrupted. In civil government, they were far superior to their predecessors,

But as for spiritual graces, how soon have they withered in the wisest? Good men in Parliament, when come to power how weak were they? … The people of God turn wicked men, that wicked men may turn to be the people of God. The lords and nobles of old could do better with it (power), because gentlemen born; but when so much money comes into the hands of poor saints, oh how they hold it and hug it and hunger after it, as dogs do after dry bones!

But Erbery managed to avoid the trap of self-righteousness. He gave up the stipend he got from tithes. He wrote that:

The life of the people of God, and mine also, is so unlike Christ that I have often wished … to go away from myself and from my people. … they are mine and I am theirs.

By 1654 he had decided, unlike the Fifth Monarchists, that the people of God should not meddle at all in matters of state since Christ’s kingdom was not of this world. This attitude of resignation after the failure of the Barebones Parliament in December 1653 made John Webster feel he had to defend Erbery against the charge of ‘falling off’ and ‘compliance’.  But to shake off the yoke before the season came was to rebel against the Lord. Erbery seems, in fact, to have been prepared to accept Cromwell as a king and was, according to Webster, rather a presser forward than an apostate, but he seems to have abandoned hope of a political solution in his lifetime:

It may be other generations may see the glory talked to be in the last time, … our children may possess it, but for our parts we have no hopes to enjoy it, or in this life to be raised out of our graves. … all the scattered saints this day do dwell, and I also with them waiting for deliverance.

Erbery was often accused of being ‘a loose person or a Ranter’, of having a ranting spirit; he was also alleged, like the Ranters, to be devious, covering himself by double meanings. Erbery denied the accusation of Ranterism, but not always wholeheartedly. He spoke of the holiness and righteousness in truth flowing from the power of God in us, which by the world hath been nicknamed with Puritanism, and in some now Ranting, though he refused to justify those profane people called Ranters, who blasphemed, cursed, whored, openly rejoicing in their wickedness. He admitted that he was commonly judged by good men as one of those owning this principle and practising their ways, but denied saying that the Ranters were the best saints: his point had been that the self-styled saints were worse than the Ranters, lusting after the wisdom, power, glory and honour of this present world. At least Ranters were honest about it:

These, it may be, lie with a woman once a month, but those men, having their eyes full of adultery, … do lie with twenty women between Paul’s and Westminster.

John Webster, noting that ‘by some weaker spirits’ Erbery’s doctrine concerning the restitution of all things, the liberty of the creation, … the saints’ oneness in Christ with God was misunderstood or led to practices which Erbery regretted. Even in print, Erbery was often very rude and coarsely jocular about what others might regard as sacred subjects. He thought that holy communion should be a full meal, with lots of drink, and was clearly not averse to a pipe of tobacco after prayers. In these practises, of course, he was far from alone, but the fact that he referred to them in print naturally drew comments from his critics. It is clear that he was very much at home in the world of taverns and tobacco in which many of the sects used to meet. William Erbery died in 1654, and his epitaph was not unfittingly written by one of his friends:

Some are dead that seem alive,

But Erbery’s worth shall still survive. 

‘Bridges’ across turbulent waters:

As early as 1641, ‘divines’ were complaining that religion had become the common discourse and table-talk in every tavern and ale-house. One preacher told the House of Commons in July 1646 that ale-houses generally are … the meeting places of malignants and sectaries.  In London, the Ranters met at a victualling house kept by one of their number in the Minories, and at the David and Harp in Moor Lane, in the parish of St Giles, Cripplegate, kept by the husband of Mary Middleton, one of Lawrence Clarkson’s mistresses. According to George Fox, the Ranters had:

some kind of meetings … but they took tobacco and drank ale in their meetings, and were grown light and loose. … (They) sung and whistled and danced.

036John Bunyan (right) thought the Ranters talked too much, one contemporary meaning of the verb ‘to rant’. This may be one reason why the Quakers began their meetings in silence. Yet Fox understood their point. When ‘a forward, bold lad’ offered him a pipe, saying ‘Come, all is ours,’ Fox, who was no smoker, took his pipe and put it to my mouth, and gave it to him again to stop him, lest his rude tongue should say I had not unity with the creation. The last phrase of Fox’s tells us that we should never fail to look for symbolism in what appear the extravagant gestures of seventeenth-century radicals. Ranter advocacy of blasphemy, it has been suggested, was a symbolic expression of freedom from moral restraints. Abiezer Coppe was alleged to have sworn, uninterrupted, for a full hour in the pulpit: a pox of God take all your prayers. 

An obsessive desire to swear had possessed Coppe in early life, but he resisted it for twenty-seven years, before making up for his abstinence. He would rather, he declared, hear a mighty angel (in man) swearing a full-mouthed oath than hear an orthodox minister preach. He made a distinction between swearing ignorantly, i’th dark, and… swearing i’th light, gloriously. Even those on the more mystical and quietist wing of the Ranters were also in the habit of using ‘many desperate oaths’. Bunyan reveals the tensions which lay behind Coppe’s 1646 ‘indulgence’ in his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Swearing was an act of defiance, both of God but also of ‘middle-class society’, and of the puritan ethics endemic in it.  As Bunyan remarked, ‘Many think to swear is gentleman-like’ and certainly, many courtiers and members of the aristocracy and gentry classes could get away with it: royalists in the civil wars were known as ‘Dammees’. For the lower orders, however, swearing could prove expensive: one ‘debauched seaman, after being fined at the rate of 6d. for an oath, placed 2s. 6d. on the table in order to have his money’s worth. Lower-order use of oaths was a proclamation of their equality with the greatest, just as Puritan opposition to vain swearing was a criticism of aristocratic and plebian irreligion. But it also expressed a revolt against the imposition of middle-class Puritan mores, interfering with the simple pleasures of the poor for ideological reasons. Bibliolatry led to a phobia about swearing; rejection of the Bible as the sole authority in Christian life made it possible again and with it a release of the repressions which gave the Puritan middle class their moral energy.

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Abiezer Coppe (1619-72) was the most celebrated of the Ranters. He had grown up in Warwick. In his adolescence, he was obsessed by a conviction of his sinfulness. A prey to neurotic anxiety, he kept a daily register of his sins, fasting and imposing vigils and humiliations on himself. In 1636 he went up to Oxford as a ‘poor scholar’, at first a Servitor at All Saints and then as a Postmaster at Merton. By this time his morals were less strict and he would often ‘entertain a wanton Housewife in his Chamber’ overnight. The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted his career at Oxford and he left the University without taking a degree. He was a Presbyterian for some time, like Lawrence Clarkson, and later became an Anabaptist minister. In this capacity, he was very active in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, ‘dipping’ some seven thousand persons, and officiating as a preacher to a garrison. For these activities, he was imprisoned in Coventry in 1646. Other misfortunes were brought upon Coppe by the growing eccentricities in his religious life. He says that his father and mother forsook him and his wife turned from him in loathing, that his reputation was ruined and his house was set on fire. These events, in turn, prepared the way for his conversion to Ranterism, which took place in 1649. Besides adopting the usual pantheism of the Free Spirit, he seems to have adopted Adamitic ways. According to Wood in Athenae Oxonienses:

‘Twas usual with him to preach stark naked many blasphemies and unheard Villanies in the Daytime, and in the Night to drink and lye with a Wenche, that had been also his hearer, stark naked.

It was no doubt for such behaviour that he was imprisoned for fourteen weeks at Warwick. Clarkson recorded that he later belonged to the group of Ranters who called themselves ‘My One Flesh’. Coppe was commonly listed together with Clarkson as a leader of the orgiastic Ranters. Coppe was among the drinking, smoking Ranters who appeared in George Fox’s prison at Charing Cross.  He seems to have been an alcoholic, but above all, he indulged his long-suppressed craving to curse and swear. Richard Baxter asked with horror how it came to pass that, as followers of this man, …

… men and women professing the zealous fear of God, should … be brought to place their Religion in revelling, roaring, drinking, whoring, open full-mouthed swearing ordinarily by the Wounds and Blood of God, and the fearfullest cursing that hath been heard.

Besides his swearing from the pulpit, mentioned above, Coppe swore at the hostess of a tavern so fearsomely that she trembled and quaked for some hours after. Some of his ‘disciples’ were put in the stocks at Stratford-upon-Avon for their swearing. It was as a Ranter in 1649 that Coppe produced his only noteworthy writings, including his two Fiery Flying Rolls which resulted in his arrest in January 1650. He was imprisoned at Coventry for a second time, and then at Newgate. Parliament issued an order that the Rolls, as containing many horrid blasphemies, and damnable and detestable Opinions, be seized by mayors, sheriff and justices of the peace throughout the Commonwealth and burnt by the public hangman. Copies were to be publicly burnt at Westminster and Southwark. The Act of August 1650 was largely directed against Coppe’s works. Finally, the committee of Parliament which examined Clarkson in September 1650 also examined Coppe shortly afterwards. During the interrogation, the prisoner feigned madness, throwing nut-shells and other things about the room. In Newgate, Coppe received many visitors, and by ‘smooth arguments’ converted not a few to Ranterism. In the end, however, the strain of imprisonment began to tell. At the beginning of 1651, he issued from prison a Remonstrance of the sincere and zealous Protestation of Abiezer Croppe against the Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions recited in the Act of Aug. 1650. This was followed five months later by a full recantation, Copps Return to the wayes of Truth… In this Coppe attributed his imprisonment to some strange actions and carriages … some difficult, dark, hard, strange, harsh and almost unheard-of words, and expressions. Of his Ranting, he said:

The terrible, notable day of the Lord stole upon me unawares, like a thiefe in the night. … And the cup of the Lords right hand, was put into mine hand. And it was filled brim full of intoxicating wine, and I drank it off, even the dregs thereof. Whereupon being mad drunk, I so strangely spake, and acted I knew not what. To the amazement of some. To the sore perplexity of others. And to the great grief of others. And till that cup passed from me, I knew not what I spake or did.

Now that his understanding had returned to him, he begged that the Fiery Flying Rolls be thrown into the fire. As a result of this Petition to Parliament and Council of State Coppe was released, after a year and a half in prison. Baxter, who had spoken with Coppe, was certain that he was no madman; and in September he preached a recantation sermon at Burford, and thereafter his life was unadventurous. After the restoration, he practised as a ‘physic’ at Barnes under the name of Dr Higham, through to his death. Coppe’s writings give the impression of eccentricity rather than of any kind of psychotic state. For understanding the religion of the Free Spirit they are of great value. They also throw a good deal of light on the ‘social doctrine’ of the Free Spirit. Coppe affirmed that all things belong, or ought to belong, to the Lord alone, and utterly condemned the institution of private property. The urge to apostolic poverty and public self-abasement, normally regarded as characteristically medieval, can be seen here in the seventeenth-century England. We can also observe in these writings how easily such a rejection of private property can merge with a hatred of the rich, as happened on the Continent in earlier centuries, giving rise to an intransigent and potentially violent form of revolutionary millenarianism.

A. L. Morton, the historian of the Ranters, suggested that migratory craftsmen, freed by the breakdown in the economic system during the Revolution, men who were unattached and prepared to break with tradition, provided much of the support for the movement. We should bear in mind that the mobile itinerant population, evicted cottagers, whether peasants or craftsmen, slowly gravitating to the big towns and there finding themselves outsiders, sometimes forming themselves into religious groups which rapidly became more and more radical. It is very difficult to define what the Ranters believed, as opposed to individuals who were called Ranters. The same is true to a lesser extent of the Levellers or early Quakers, but the Levellers did issue programmatic statements, and the pamphlets of Fox and Nayler can be accepted as authoritative for the Quakers. There was no recognised leader or theoretician of the Ranters, and it is extremely doubtful as to whether there was ever a Ranter organisation. As so often in the history of radical movements, the name came into existence as a term of abuse.

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The Regicide & the Rump:

Following the execution of Charles I at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, the Rump Parliament followed up the regicide with acts abolishing the office of the monarch and the House of Lords. It called them acts, not ordinances, because they required no other ascent now but that of the Commons. But behind the Rump stood the army, to whose force it owed its power, and the army might not sustain it for long since its first intention had been to dissolve the parliament rather than purge it. The Rumpers themselves promised, in their act of 17 March that abolished the monarchy, that they would dissolve the ‘Long Parliament’ themselves so soon as may possibly stand with the safety of the people that hath betrusted them.  The army had seemingly committed itself to support a programme of radical reform, embodied in the revised Agreement of the People that it had presented to the Rump, a programme that would have transformed the constitution and regulated the frequency and duration of parliamentary sittings, brought significant alterations to the law of the land and changed the whole relationship between church and state. The army and its supporters hoped and expected that the ‘caretaker’ régime, as they saw it, would soon make way for a reformed and reforming parliament, elected on a far broader franchise than ever in the past.

Through the share they had taken in drafting the new ‘Agreement’, the Levellers had reached the peak of their influence. From the early months of 1649 onwards, there was a burgeoning of various groups even more radical than the Levellers: the Fifth Monarchists, who felt a divine call to set up the exclusive rule of their fellow ‘saints’ in preparation for Christ’s prophesied kingdom on earth; the ‘Diggers’, who called themselves ‘True Levellers’, and preached and practised the community of property; and the ‘Ranters’ who believed that those who had discovered the godhead within them were liberated from all conventional morality. Of these groups, only the Fifth Monarchists had any considerable following in the army, but there was an understandable fear in conservative hearts that with dissolution threatening the ancient constitution, the established church, and the known laws of the land, a dark and revolutionary future lay ahead. No-one could have foreseen that the Rump would go on wielding sovereign authority over England and Wales for four and a quarter years after Charles I’s execution, longer than the whole duration of the first Civil War, and almost as long as Cromwell’s whole rule as Lord Protector.

The Rump’s temper became more conservative over that period, as the mood became more revolutionary outside parliament. The majority of the remaining MPs were deeply unsympathetic, if not intolerant towards the aspirations of Levellers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, Ranters and extremist sects of all kinds. Its concessions to religious liberty were to be limited and grudging, its record in social reform miserably meagre, and the professional interests of its influential lawyer-members made it deeply suspicious of any changes in the substance and operation of the law, where reform was overdue. The period from 1649-53 was one in which the Commons, not Cromwell, was in charge of government policy. He was immensely influential, but as Lord General of the Army, he was away from Westminster and on campaign in Scotland and Ireland for much of the period, and when these commitments did allow him to be in the Commons, he by no means got his own way. Even after 1653, when he became Lord Protector, the case of James Nayler, the Quaker leader, three years later, demonstrates the limited power Cromwell had to protect religious liberty.

The Rump was as hesitant in grasping the nettle of religious settlement as it was in placing the Commonwealth on firm constitutional foundations. By the early 1650s, the old dividing line between Presbyterians and Independents was no longer so sharply drawn, since by then many doctrinally orthodox Calvinists persuasions were prepared to put their differences aside in order to resist the rising tide of radical sectarianism and popular heresy, of which the writings of the so-called Ranters were an extreme example. There was a small party of sectarian enthusiasts within the Rump, including the army Colonels Harrison, Rich, Fleetwood and John Jones, who managed to secure the establishment of a Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, with a similar one being established for England’s northern counties. But the majority of MPs were suspicious of religious enthusiasm and did not want to incur greater unpopularity by seeming to encourage it. They were aware of the strong preference in the country at large for retaining a national church with a publicly maintained parochial ministry, and many of them shared it. An established church was already in being when the Rump came to power, with its faith, worship and government defined by the Westminster Assembly and given statutory authority by the unpurged parliament. But parliament was divided on whether to continue implementing the Presbyterian system, and the motion to confirm it was lost on the vote of the Speaker. In practice, a wide variety of worship and church organisation prevailed in the provinces and parishes.

While the Rump shied aware from the contentious business of providing for the propagation of the gospel on a national scale in England, it continued to demonstrate those things that it was against, like sin and blasphemy. Between April and June 1650 it passed acts against non-observance of the sabbath and against swearing and cursing, as well as the notorious one which punished adultery, incest, and fornication with death, even on a first offence. Mercifully, it was very little enforced. A Blasphemy Act followed in August, less savage than the Long Parliament’s Blasphemy Ordinance of 1648 and aimed mainly at the Ranters, though both George Fox and John Bunyan fell foul of its provisions. It was specifically targeted at the Ranters’ denial of the necessity of the civil and moral righteousness among men (which) tended to the dissolution of all human society. It denounced anyone who maintained himself or herself as God, or equal with God; or that acts of adultery, drunkenness, swearing, theft, etc. were not in themselves sinful, or that there is no such thing as sin but as a man or woman judgeth thereof. The penalty for the first offence was six months in jail, banishment for the second and death if the offender refused to depart or returned. However, judges interpreting the Act refused to allow JPs, clergy and juries to extend its provisions to the sincere if unorthodox religious opinions of a ‘Ranter’ like Richard Coppin, or a Quaker like Wiliam Dewsbury.

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Above: Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Rump of the Long Parliament, 1653.

The House took longer to confront the issue of toleration, but in September 1650 it finally repealed the recusancy laws to the extent of repealing the penalties for non-attendance of parish Sunday services, provided that those who absented themselves attended some other form of public worship. Outside the broad national church, the separatist congregations which chose and supported their own pastors enjoyed considerable liberty under Cromwell’s Protectorate, between 1653 and 1658, though it was not unlimited. It did not extend to those whose teachings or actions were considered blasphemous, such as the Unitarian John Biddle or the Quaker James Nayler. Cromwell was reluctant, however, to see these men punished as severely as his parliament desired, and he was more indulgent towards Quakers than most gentry magistrates. But he gave no countenance to those who tried to break up the services conducted by the parish churches in what they called ‘steeple-houses’, and he was even more firmly against so-called Ranters who preached and practised the belief that the spirit had liberated them from the moral code enjoined by Holy Scripture. He was not in favour of ‘toleration’ in the late-modern sense who regards an individual’s religious convictions as an entirely private matter, so long as they do not impinge on the rights or liberties of others. Neither was his ideal a kind of religious pluralism involving a variety of sects, tolerated out of indifference, but a community of all who had ‘the root of the matter’ in them, in a manner transcending differences over outward forms and rites.

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Cromwell’s Commonwealth & its Critics:

On 3 September 1654, Cromwell opened the first real Parliament of his Protectorate. He made a speech on the duty of ‘healing and settling’ in which he contrasted the state of the nation just before the Protectorate was established with what it was at that date. Then, the strife within it had grown so high as to threaten not only ordered government but the very fabric of society, the ranks and orders of men, whereby England hath been known for hundreds of years: a nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman. This, of course, was an exaggeration, as even more was his allegation that ‘men of Levelling principles’ had been undermining property itself and bidding to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. Turning to religion, he said it had been in an even worse condition than the civil state, what with the unchecked preaching of ‘prodigious blasphemies’ and the invocation of so-called faith to justify the breaking of ‘all rules of law and nature’. He referred to the Ranters, although he did not name them as such. Such horrors, he said, had brought to mind the iniquities prophesied for ‘the last times’, for Christ returned to earth in judgement. The power to check them had been undermined by a ‘second sort of men’, who while not justifying such evils denied the civil magistrate any authority to intervene, on the ground that matters of conscience and belief lay outside his sphere.

054Cromwell, pictured on the right on the ‘Dunbar medal’, given to those like the Quaker James Nayler who had fought in the Third Civil War, reaffirmed his own commitment to liberty of conscience but defended the claim of the civil power to a role in promoting true religion and punishing manifest wickedness. He upheld the right of godly and gifted laymen to preach, but he repudiated the sectarian extremists who denounced the whole concept of an ordained ministry as antichristian. He adopted a gentler tone when he went on to condemn  ‘the mistaken notion of the Fifth Monarchy’, acknowledging that many honest, God-fearing men adhered to it.

It was one thing, however, to expect that Jesus Christ will have a time to set up his reign in our hearts, but quite another for men upon their own conviction of God’s presence with them to claim a sole right to rule kingdoms, govern nations, and give laws to people. But he drew a strict line between belief and practice in this regard:

If these were but notions, they were to be let alone. Notions will hurt none but them that have them. But when they come to practices, as to tell us that liberty and property are not the badges of the kingdom of Christ, and to tell us that instead of regulating laws, laws are to be abrogated, indeed subverted, and perhaps would bring in the Judicial law instead of our known laws settled amongst us, – this is worthy of every magistrate’s consideration, especially where every stone is turned to bring confusion.

031Such people, he said, not only threatened anarchy at home but obstructed the work of settlement in Scotland and Ireland and hindered the negotiation of peace with Holland, Portugal and France. The next year, however, Cromwell reaffirmed his message of the need for broad liberty of conscience, and for a charitable attitude within the nation, in a declaration issued on 20 March 1654, at a time of a long drought:

Is brotherly love, and a healing spirit of that force and value amongst us that it ought? … Do we first search for the kingdom of Christ within us,  before we seek one without us?

… Do we not more contend for saints having rule in the world, than over their own hearts? … Do not some of us affirm ourselves to be the only true ministry, and true churches of Christ, and only to have the ordinances in purity, excluding our brethren, though of equal gifts? … Do we remember old puritan, or rather primitive simplicity, self-denial, mercy to the poor, uprightness and justice?

034Of course, this ecumenical concept of religious liberty did not extend to Roman Catholics, although they were no longer persecuted for practising their faith. Most Episcopalians and many Presbyterians, like Richard Baxter (right), still blamed Cromwell for the King’s execution, believing also that the King could have saved his own life if he had agreed to give up the Prayer Book and the Bishops in the Church of England.

Baxter thought, simply enough, that many of the things that Christians quarrelled over could be resolved if they were prepared to give way a little. Although Baxter had become Chaplain to Cromwell’s cavalry after the Battle of Naseby, the two men did not get on well with each other, though they respected one another. Both may have been fonder of talking than of listening. Cromwell sent to Baxter to come to listen to him, speaking for an hour about the great things God had done for England through him. Baxter got tired of listening to him without a turn. When it finally came, he told the Lord Protector that he thought the proper way of governing was by King and Parliament. Although not the only preacher to tell him this (Rhys ‘Arise’ Evans had also told him that he should restore the monarchy under Charles Stuart), Cromwell lost his temper with Baxter and they went on arguing for a further four hours, at the end of which, Baxter reported:

” … I saw that what he learned must be from himself, being more disposed to speak many hours than to hear one and little heeding what another said when he had spoken himself”.

Baxter had liked Cromwell best when he was still his Lord General. He had believed him to be honest and truly religious, but he thought that power had corrupted him as Lord Protector. He himself pointed out, however, that it was very difficult to know what to believe about Cromwell the man, for … no man was better and worse spoken than he, … as men’s interests led their judgements”. On his side, Cromwell thought highly enough of Baxter to wish to talk to him in a bid to gain his approval and blessing, though in this he failed.

Quakers v Ranters:

Quakerism had been the ‘legitimate’ offshoot of the ‘Seekers’, a religious movement which, as we have seen, was powerful long before the time of Fox. The Ranters were like its illegitimate and wayward offspring whose unpleasant label only faintly foreshadowed their practises, as reported by admittedly antagonistic scribes. The Quaker doctrine of the ‘Inner Light’, which formed the core of Fox’s message and had first attracted Nayler to Quakerism, became with the Ranters a belief in their absolute oneness with God. This belief carried with it by implication the assertion of personal infallibility, together with an all-embracing licence. Fox’s judgement of, as many saw them, this pernicious ‘sect’ did not err on the side of charity, and when one of its ‘members’ sought to ingratiate himself with the Quaker leader he repelled him with the exhortation: “Repent thou swine and beast!” He followed this up with a reference to “the old Ranters in Sodom”. Nayler himself, in the early months of his ministry, records their presence at his meetings in no uncertain tones:

Their filthy hearts was plainly manifest to the view of all the people, and the terrour of the lord was upon them all the while they was amongst us, not being long, so that they fled away.

Ranterism, though closely akin to Quakerism in its doctrines, was sharply distinguished by its disregard of authority and lack of moral restraint. Yet since their doctrines were so closely aligned, there was constant merger and migration between one and the other, something which Episcopalian and Presbyterian propagandists were not slow to play up in their literature. Contemporary commentators long tended to lump together the early Quakers with the Ranters. There was an unreasoning hostility of conservative critics, who believed that both Ranter and Quaker ideas must lead to licentiousness and therefore assumed that they did; there was also the likelihood that many early rank-and-file Quakers had in fact not entirely shaken themselves free from Ranter ideas and practices.  We hear of Ranters, as of Fifth Monarchists, after the execution of Charles I and the defeat of the Leveller Uprising at Burford. The latter event no doubt relates to the origins of the two groups, as it does to the emergence of the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’. As one pamphleteer wrote in 1651, All the world now is in the Ranting humour. A Southwark physician in 1652 defended the Ranters against ‘time-serving saints’ because of their charitable attitude towards the poor. But John Reeve ascribed to them a pretended universal love to the whole creation. At first, he was attracted by their

… imagination of the eternal salvation of all mankind, though they lived and died under the power of all manner of unrighteousness.

In the early fifties, Bunyan found some Ranter books held highly in esteem by several old professors and one of his close companions turned a most devilish Ranter and gave himself up to all manner of filthiness. He denied the existence of God or angels and laughed at exhortations to sobriety. Other persons, formerly strict in religion, were swept away by Ranters: they would condemn Bunyan as legal and dark, pretending that they only had attained to perfection that could do what they would and not sin, a doctrine which Bunyan himself found very seductive, I being but a young man. He was especially tempted to believe that there was no judgement or resurrection, and therefore that sin was no such grievous thing, turning the grace of God into wantonness. Bunyan’s answer to Ranters became the orthodox one: they lacked a conviction of sin. Samuel Fisher, the Baptist, said that they despised the ordinances of Christ and …

… run beyond the bounds of modesty and all good manners. The rabble of the ruder sort of Ranters. … are willingly ignorant, because of the tediousness of that thought to them, that there is any more coming of Christ at all. Some deny the existence of Christ: others claim to be Christ or God.

In 1649, when George Fox first met the Ranters in Coventry jail, they had shocked him by claiming to be God, some of them stating that there is no creator God but that everything comes by nature. Richard Baxter declared that Ranters set up the light of nature under the name of Christ in man. With the spiritual pride of ungrounded novices in religion, they believed that God regards not the actions of the outward man, but of the heart: that to the pure all things were pure, which they took as licensing blasphemy and continuous whoredom. Fortunately, he went on, the ‘horrid villainies’ of this sect speedily extinguished it, but reflected discredit on all other sects. John Holand, a hostile but not unfair witness, said that Ranters called God ‘Reason’, as Gerrard Winstanley had also done. For Ranters, ‘Christ in us’ was far more important than the historical figure who died in Jerusalem, …

… and all the commandments of God, both in the Old and New Testaments, are the fruits of the curse. Since all men are now freed of the curse, they are also free from the commandments; our will is God’s will.

The existence of evil was a subject to which Ranters paid a good deal of attention: simple believers found their arguments difficult to answer, such as the age-old one: If God is omnipotent, why does he permit evil? Others denied that there was any such thing as sin; if there was, it must be part of God’s plan. The day of judgement is either an invented thing … a bugbear to keep men in awe. Lawrence Clarkson believed that, in any case, there was no life after death:

… even as a stream from the ocean was distinct in itself while it was a stream, but when returned to the ocean was therein swallowed and became one with the ocean: so the spirit of man whilst in the body was distinct from God, but when death came it returned to God, and so became one with God, yea God itself.

Clarkson added that he would know nothing after this my being was dissolved. An extreme form of this doctrine attributed to Ranters was that those are most perfect … which do commit the greatest sins with the least remorse. Clarkson came very near to espousing this himself in his writing:

… till I acted that so-called sin I could not predominate over sin. (But now) whatsoever I act is … in relation to … that Eternity in me … So long as the act was in God … it was as holy as God. 

This included, he insisted, those acts by thee called swearing, drunkenness, adultery and theft, etc. Clarkson  (1615-67) was a native of Preston. Brought up in the Church of England, in youth he showed Puritan leanings; he regarded dancing on the Sabbath with particular horror. He became a Presbyterian and then an Independent, an Antinomian in theology. He became a ‘parish priest’ in Norfolk, but then led a wandering life. In 1644, he became an Anabaptist and the following year was imprisoned for ‘dipping’. Up to the end of 1648, he followed another of the major religious tendencies of the time, that of the Seekers. During this period he was an itinerant preacher in Kent before becoming a minister in two more parishes, in Hertfordshire and Lincolnshire. He also began to write religious tracts, but not being a University man, he was very often turned out of employment and was therefore constantly in financial straits. Taking a commission as a chaplain in an Army regiment, he tried to find a parish in London on leaving it in 1649, having been cashiered for blasphemy. He held a living at Pulham for a short time until he was turned out for preaching universal salvation. He then became Baptist and, under Erbery’s influence, a Seeker, preaching for monies in each faith.

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Clarkson developed Familist ideas of Luther’s reformation in his preaching but carried them considerably further. He also began to practice what he preached, escaping from one ‘maid of pretty knowledge, who with my doctrine was affected’ giving his body to other women whilst being ‘careful for moneys for my wife’, travelling the country with Mrs Star, and resisting the opportunity when ‘Dr Paget’s maid stripped herself naked and skipped’ at a Ranters’ meeting. Early in 1650, Clarkson became a Ranter and was soon the notorious leader of the particularly licentious group, ‘My One Flesh’ to which Abiezer Coppe also belonged. He was arrested and examined. As on a previous occasion, he stood on his rights as a ‘freeborn subject’ and refused to answer incriminating questions. On 27 September 1650, the House sentenced him to a month’s imprisonment for his ‘blasphemous’ book, A Single Eye, to be followed by banishment. This latter sentence was never carried out, however, and on his release, he resumed his wandering life before joining the ‘Muggletonians’ in 1658, a sect of extreme ascetics, writing several tracts on their behalf.

Quakers first entered the ‘arena’ of the Commonwealth as a wing of the government party in the years 1651-53, enjoying the protection of the military authorities., and of local gentlemen of radical inclinations. They also had sometimes the more enthusiastic support of the Army rank-and-file. Those who administered the North of England or Wales could not afford to alienate Quaker missionaries, many of whom were ex-New Model Army soldiers. George Fox had been in prison for nearly a year at Derby in 1650, but in the North, as we can see from his own Journal, he enjoyed a good deal of protection in 1651-52. Even hostile JPs, of whom there were many, had to proceed cautiously against him. Persecution began again, spasmodically, from the end of 1652, when the dissolution of the Rump appeared imminent, and again after 1653 when the gentry felt they had been given a free hand. Fox was imprisoned at Carlisle, but then the relatively radical Barebones Parliament met: a letter from it got Fox released and his jailor put in his place in the dungeon. In Wales, JPs also protected Quakers as a lesser evil than ‘papists’ or ‘pagans’. It was the Quakers themselves who alienated the clergy through indiscriminate attacks on the sanctity of ecclesiastical buildings made it for any priest to support them and continue to hold his living.

In 1654, Fox was arrested on suspicion of plotting against the government, but he was well received by Oliver Cromwell. Those who wished ill towards the Quakers were those who resented Army rule; their views were strongly represented in the Parliament of 1656, as was demonstrated from the debates over James Nayler. Dark hints were dropped that the spread of the Quakers had been due to official encouragement, indeed that Quakers were to be found in the government itself.  Major General Philip Skippon, Nayler’s main Army opponent, had been regarded as ‘Parliament’s man in the Army’ in 1647. The rapid expansion of Quakerism both in the Army by 1649 and more broadly in the South and East of England in the early 1650s had made the ‘men of property’ apprehensive of ‘some Levelling design’ underlying the well-organised movement. The fact that Quakers were said to have reclaimed ‘such as neither magistrate nor minister ever speak to’ might seem reassuring after Quaker pacifism was firmly established and known to be accepted by all members of the sect. But that was to come later in the decade, and after the Restoration. In the mid-fifties, it was still far from being the case.

Baptists & Quakers – Bunyan v Fox:

Ranterism was better at destruction than it was at construction. In 1650, it was by listening to the ‘errors’ of Diggers, Levellers and Ranters that Baptist churches in Cromwell’s Huntingdonshire and elsewhere were ‘shaken’ and ‘broken up’. In Cleveland, in 1651 it was meetings that had been ‘shattered’ under Ranter influence that turned to Quakerism. At that time, both Quakers and their critics mainly defined their beliefs by negatives, in terms of what they were against. Unlike many of the Ranters, however, they did not deny the existence of God or a historical Christ, or of heaven and hell. Neither did they believe that all could attain perfection in their earthly life. Most importantly, in terms of social and political attitudes, they did not challenge the authority of parents or magistrates. In the early 1650s, John Bunyan listed Quaker beliefs, which can be summarised as follows:

(1) The Bible is not the Word of God;

(2) Every man in the world has the Spirit of Christ;

(3) The Jesus Christ who was crucified 1600 years ago did not satisfy divine justice for the sins of the people;

(4) Christ’s flesh and blood is within the saints;

(5) There will be no resurrection of the body;

(6) The resurrection has already taken place within good men;

(7) The crucified Jesus did not ascend above the starry heavens and shall not come again on the last day as a man to judge all nations.

In 1654, Fox himself witnessed that Ranters had a pure convincement, but that they had fled the cross and turned the grace of God into wantonness. He emphasised especially drunkenness, swearing, and ‘sporting yourselves in the day-time’. He had a short way with them, because, in his opinion, they bowed and scraped too much and were too complimentary. In his Journal, Fox records many Ranter groups which ultimately became Quaker, in Cleveland, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Sussex and Reading, for example. In the same year, Anthony Pearson said that “some that are joined to the Ranters are pretty people,” but that they “contained so many rude savage apprentices and young people … that nothing but the power of the Lord can chain them.”  But in 1655, the Quaker James Parnell admitted that the Quakers were accused of ‘being one’ with the Ranters:

Some of them have tasted the love of God and grace of God, and have had appearances of God, but they have turned the grace of God into wantonness, and have deceived so many with their alluring speeches. Their lascivious ways bring discredit on the truth of God.

In the same year, a diarist in Cheshire wrote that Quakers also denied the Trinity; … denied the Scriptures to be the Word of God; they said that they had no sin. From this doctrinal perspective, therefore, it is also possible to see how they might have attracted former Ranters, suggesting that contemporary judges and magistrates were correct in their famous assertions that had not the Quakers come, the Ranters had over-run the nation. In part, no doubt, enemies of the Quakers were anxious to discredit them, claiming that Quakerism had become ‘the common sink of them all’, including Anabaptists, Antinomians, Socinians, Familists, Libertines and Ranters. But there does seem to have been genuine doctrinal confusion as well as ideological fluidity between the memberships of the movements and sects. In Dorset and Wiltshire, former Levellers were alleged to have become Ranters. The Quakers seemed to absorb many ex-Levellers, including John Lilburne. His acceptance of Quakerism in 1655 was a very different act for the former revolutionary than if he had been convinced after 1660. As late as August 1655, the Grand Jury of Gloucestershire petitioned against Ranters, Levellers and atheists, under the name of Quakers. Christopher Atkinson was accepted as a Quaker until in 1655 he fell …

… into too much familiarity and conversation with some women kind, especially such as (it seemed) were somewhat inclined to a spirit of Ranterism. He grew loose and … committed lewdness with a servant-maid.

Mary Todd, a London lady who at a meeting pulled up all her clothes above her middle, exposing her nakedness to all in the room was disowned by the Quakers, who claimed she was a Ranter: but the act of disavowal suggests that they felt some measure of responsibility for her. In the 1650s there were ‘Proud Quakers’, who showed clear ranting tendencies. They used profane language, were lax in conduct; some of them were football players and wrestlers. Their leader, Rice Jones of Nottingham, set up an ale-house. After the restoration, John Perrot claimed a direct command from God that hats should be worn during prayer, a significant Ranter practice which James Nayler had also followed during his time in the West Country. But Perrot went on to deny all human arrangements for worship, even meeting at stated times and places. Fox said that Perrot preached the rotten principles of the Old Ranters, and associated him with Nayler, many of whose former partisans supported Perrot. Long after the restoration, Fox was insisting that some people claiming to be Quakers were really Ranters. Richard Baxter, who had no reason to love the ‘Friends’, paid them a deserved compliment when he wrote:

The Quakers were but the Ranters turned from horrid profaneness and blasphemy to a life of extreme austerity.

But the Quakers could hardly have prevented the Ranters from over-running the country unless their doctrines had been, at least initially, near enough to Ranterism to absorb many Ranters. Edward Burrough had straddled this doctrinal gap between Ranters and Quakers. He may originally have had Ranter sympathies; at one time he worked closely with Perrot and retained confidence in him longer than any other Quaker leader. In addition, as John Lampden has commented, by his preaching in London, Nayler had attracted, amongst other more reputable followers, a clique of married women all more or less tainted with Ranterism. They sought to exalt him by depreciating the work of his predecessors and pursued him with that undiscerning worship which was the chief trial and temptation of the popular preacher. Nevertheless, without naming the Ranters, Nayler himself had spoken disapprovingly that:

The greatest profession now set up by many is to make the redemption of Christ a cover for all liscentious and fleshly liberty, and say they are to that end redeemed.

Nayler’s Mission in the West; Trial & Torture by Parliament:

That was in 1656, a year after Nayler took up his work in London and prior to his ministry in the West. From the first, the doctrine of the indwelling of God in the heart of man had been the central focus of Nayler’s preaching. This point – exaggerated and distorted by his followers – was to become the rock on which his life was wrecked. It was this doctrine which had first attracted the London merchant Robert Rich to Quakerism, who had become his most faithful friend and advocate, becoming caught up into the current of Nayler’s tragedy. He seems to have responded to the call to missionary service which was heard by every primitive Friend, and in 1655 he was in prison in Banbury, together with Nayler’s Yorkshire ‘patron’ with whom he had worked in the North, and two women preachers. There is no record of Nayler’s first meeting with Rich but it is clear that, in the early months of Nayler’s ministry in the capital, he had won the merchant’s heart. This was due in part, no doubt, to his extraordinary charm of manner, but chiefly to the stress that Nayler laid on the doctrine of the Inner Light.

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In October 1656, Nayler staged a triumphal entry into Bristol, shown above, which was blatantly modelled on Christ’s acted parable at Jerusalem. He rode an ass, accompanied by two of his many women disciples, while others spread their garments in his path or walked behind him singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel. With his long hair, unusual for puritan preachers, he bore a natural resemblance to popular images of Jesus, and he emphasised it by the way he cut and combed his hair and beard. Parliament was outraged; it appointed a committee of no fewer than fifty-five members to examine him and his followers, and they took five weeks before they reported to the House on 5 December. Called to the bar the next day, Nayler protested that as a mere creature he claimed no special glory, but shared the common Quaker conviction that Christ dwells in all believers. He was convinced that he had a revelation from God, commanding him to do what he did as a sign of Christ’s coming. There is no evidence that Robert Rich took any part in their extravagances in the West, and he indignantly repelled the charge of Ranterism which was later brought against him. At the crisis of Nayler’s trial for blasphemy, he determined that whatever might be the errors of the preacher’s followers he himself had offended in nothing save, as he said, …

” … in confessing to Christ in the saints, and my love to that testimony made me willing to stand by him in his sufferings and to bear his cross.” 

Rich took up the unpopular role of Nayler’s champion and flung himself into his defence with the generosity which was the most striking trait of his character. Day by day through that dreary November of 1656, while Parliament debated the guilt of Nayler and the punishment meet for it, Rich, ‘the mad merchant’ as he began to be called, haunted the door of the House with petitions and letters, or lay in wait to make a personal appeal to any member whom he judged to have some tinge of pity in him. He even offered to prove to the Parliament out of Scripture that the prisoner had uttered no blasphemy, nor done anything worthy of death or ‘of bonds’. The House spent nine days in hot debate as to what to do with Nayler since under the 1650 Blasphemy Act he could be given no more than six months’ imprisonment for a first offence, and for the bloodthirsty majority in the Commons that was not enough. He escaped the death penalty by only ninety-six votes to eighty-two, due largely to the support of Cromwell’s supporters on the council of state, like Sir Gilbert Pickering. But the Commons sentenced him to a series of corporal punishments, to be carried out in London and Bristol, to be followed by indefinite solitary confinement and hard labour.

Flogged all the way from Westminster to the City on 18 December, 310 stripes left Nayler so weakened that the next stage of his ‘torture’ had to be postponed. Before it was executed, many petitioners, by no means all Quakers, pleaded for the remission of the rest of the sentence, first (in vain) with parliament and then with Cromwell. He immediately wrote to the Speaker, expressing abhorrence of the ‘crimes’ imputed to Nayler, but asking the House to let him know the grounds and reasons whereupon they have proceeded. This challenge to the constitutionality of its actions, which Whitelocke and others had also expressed, caused both further consternation on all sides in addition to further appeals for mercy, but the Commons voted by two to one to carry out the rest of the sentence, so that Nayler was duly branded on the forehead with the letter ‘B’ and bored through the tongue with a red hot iron. Parliament never replied to Cromwell’s letter, but the episode helped to convince its wiser heads that the constitution needed further amendment. In particular, when anything deserving the label ‘torture’ was inflicted during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, it was by order of parliament, not the executive or the judiciary, as was the case, for example, in the reign of James I. The abolition of both the monarchy and the House of Lords had destroyed the essential separation of powers inherent in the British Constitution.

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A New Constitution & continuing confusion:

The Humble Petition and Advice, as the draft of a new constitution came to be called in 1657, began by asking Cromwell to assume the title of king, though not on a hereditary basis. The most striking proposed change, however, was that parliament was to consist of two houses, with the new one approximating more to a senate than to the hereditary House of Lords, but one which could also operate as a ‘High Court’. Regarding religion, the new constitution was slightly more restrictive than the Instrument of Government which had established the Protectorate, but in practice, this change made little difference. There was to be a confession of faith, agreed between the Protector and parliament, to which clergy who received public maintenance had to conform, but no such document was ever promulgated. For those who dissented from it, toleration was limited to those who accepted the basic doctrine of the trinity and acknowledged both the New and Old Testaments to be the revealed word of God; it was explicitly denied to ‘papists’, prelatists and all ‘blasphemers’ and licentious practitioners, including those who disturbed the public peace. These last exceptions were aimed mainly at Ranters and Quakers, but the authors of the ‘Petition and Advice’ had to steer a course between displeasing intolerant magistrates and offending Cromwell’s breadth of sympathy since their whole enterprise was dependent on his acceptance of their proposals.

Clearly, critics of both sects, even sympathetic ones, continued to conflate both movements on doctrinal grounds, if not on the basis of their demeanour, conduct and practices. Thomas Collier in 1657 asserted that any that know the principles of the Ranters would easily recognise that Quaker doctrines were identical. Both would have…

… no Christ but within; no Scripture to be a rule; no ordinances, no law but their lusts, no heaven nor glory but here, no sin but what men fancied to be so, no condemnation for sin but in the consciences of ignorant ones.

Collier wrote that only Quakers smooth it over with an outward austere carriage before men, but within are full of filthiness, and he gave Nayler as an example of this.

(to be continued…)

Posted March 16, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anabaptism, Anglican Reformation, Anglicanism, Apocalypse, Austerity, baptism, Baptists, Bible, Charity, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Commons, Commonwealth, Coventry, democracy, East Anglia, Egalitarianism, English Civil War(s), eschatology, Gospel of John, History, Home Counties, Jesus Christ, Millenarianism, morality, Mysticism, Narrative, Nationality, New Testament, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Parliament, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reformation, Respectability, Resurrection, Revolution, Scotland, south Wales, The Law, theology, tyranny, Utopianism, Wales, Warfare, West Midlands, Women's History

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‘God’s Englishmen’: The Midland and East Anglian Gentry in the English Revolution, 1619-89: part two.   3 comments

ImageBefore the Civil War, the Gullivers had become successful traders and respectable aldermen of Banbury, owning shops and public houses in the town and a brewery as far away as Aylesbury. As Protestant Nonconformists, or Dissenters, possibly Quakers, many of them were also excluded from higher occupations, especially public office, though some found an alternative outlet in becoming soldiers (and later officers) in Cromwell’s Army. Others had been thriving as yoeman farmers in the outlying Banburyshire parishes, but had now fallen on hard times, like Edward Gulliver, who was born in Banbury in 1590, and married Mary Hawes in Cropredy in 1620. They settled in the nearby village of Noke, where they raised a large family before Edward died in 1647.

Jonathan Swift made later reference to the family and their tombs in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Banbury, of which there were many, but only three remain:

ImageIn his Preface to the First Edition of his famous Gulliver’s Travels, 1726, Swift remarks ‘I have observed in the Church Yard at Banbury several tombs and monuments of the Gullivers. The original tombstones no longer exist, but a later one bearing this old Banbury name lies near to this plaque.

Swift was related to the Dryden family of Canon’s Ashby in Northamptonshire. His grandmother was Elizabeth Dryden, aunt of the poet laureate, John Dryden, born near Oundle. She married Thomas Swift and they had two children, Jonathan and Thomas, the elder being the father of the author of Gulliver’s Travels. John Dryden was also a cousin of Sir Gilbert Pickering, MP, and Col. John Pickering, also of Canon’s Ashby, as detailed already.

Viscount Saye and Sele (left), William Fiennes, was also related to these Northamptonshire gentry. He had been was one of the county’s leading activists against Charles I, raising troops for the first battle at Edgehill. Cavalier troops besieged and occupied his fourteenth-century moated manor house, Broughton Castle, for a time, but were fought to a standstill on Cropredy Bridge in June 1644. They later wreaked their revenge on the puritan population of the countryside by burning down the manor house at Wormleighton. Due to this act of vengeance and attrition,the village never recovered its former status. By contrast, Noke was loyal to the King, since it had an association with Oxford going back to the plagues, when the Colleges were allowed to quarter their dons there. Oxford became Charles I’s headquarters in the Civil War, and troops were stationed in some of the villages nearby, including Noke. The village saw action in the form of raids by Parliamentarians. In one of these, horses were taken and two soldiers were killed, being buried in the churchyard. The divisions among south Midland families and villages can be detected by the records that remain of these events, in both Cavalier and Rounhead versions!

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At the end of 1643, a Midland Association of the counties of Leicester, Rutland, Nottingham, Derby, Northampton, ‘Banbury’ and Buckingham and  had ben formed. The Eastern Association consisted of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, Huntingdon (Cromwell’s home county), Hertfords and Lincoln  . Together, the two associations controlled most of the Midlands from Banbury into East Anglia as far as the coastal ports. Individual regiments were raised in specific parts of East Anglia, because Manchester believed that he could maintain esprit de corps by drafting men from each county to keep up the regiment for that county. These principles were generally maintained even after the regiments were incorporated into the New Model Army in 1645. However, Cromwell realised that centralised control and regional administration were not enough. A standing army would need discipline, regular pay and commitment to Parliament’s cause. In an oft-quoted letter dated 29 August 1643, Cromwell outlined his criteria for selecting officers:

I would rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows…

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In John Pickering he found such a man to command a regiment, and in Pickering’s regiment there were many other russet-coated captains who also fitted this description. Most of the payments to the regiment came from the County committees of Norfolk and Suffolk. In April 1645, just before its transfer into the New Model, former soldiers of Pickering’s regiment caused some disturbances in Suffolk:

By some old soldiers returned home, we have sent down to you Major Jubbes and Captain Axtell, two officers of Col. Pickering’s regiment, to receive such soldiers as formerly belonged to that regiment… If any other soldiers will come along with them and serve in that regiment these officers will take charge of them.

031From this it can be concluded that Pickering’s regiment was probably recruited mainly in Suffolk, with some men joining from Norfolk, possibly from villages along the boundary between the two counties. These men were largely pressed into service, compared with those from towns and larger villages, undoubtedly a factor in the high rates of desertion in 1644. On the other hand, after August 1643, as part of the reorganisation of the Association, under Cromwell’s influence, commanders and officers for the regiments, like Jubbes and Axtell, were chosen primarily for their military abilities, their godliness, discipline and devotion to the parliamentarian cause. They were no longer drawn from the ranks of the local gentry of the county in which the regiment was recruited. Instead, the officers either came up through promotion in the Association regiments, or from other parliamentarian Associations. Much of the responsibility for the military command in the field fell upon the Lieutenant Colonel, in this case, John Hewson. He had more than a year’s experience as a company commander before he took up his command as second-in-command in Pickering’s regiment. Before the war, he had been a shoemaker, selling to the Massachusetts Company, but getting little by trade, he in the beginning of the grand rebellion, went out as a captain upon the account of the blessed cause. Having served in the Earl of Essex’s regiment from late 1642, he joined Pickering’s in late March of 1644.

John Jubbes’ family lived in Norwich. He had joined the Eastern Association army as a Captain of foot in Col. Sir Miles Hubbard’s regiment at its formation, in April 1643. Jubbes had, in his own words, joined the army because he had been long deeply sensible of the many grievous Incroachments and Usurpations exercised over the People of this Nation. After seeing action in the engagements of the Association in 1643, Jubbes took up a commission as Major with Pickering’s regiment in March 1644, taking responsibility for the regiment’s finances. He had already raised money in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex on Manchester’s orders. However, in a letter dated December 1643, Thomas Windham wrote:

My personal estate I have given up at two thousand pounds, which is more than I know I am worth, my estate in lands to the uppermost, during my father’s life. The oppression practised by Jubs and his associates is very odious, their fury in churches detestable.

The historian, Ketton-Cremer, has argued that,

Lt. Col. John Jubbes, who expressed violently anti-monarchical sentiments at the critical Army Council of 1st November 1647… was just the kind of man to display detestable fury in churches.

038He has described this as random iconoclasm, carried out by local puritan extremists or detachments of unruly troops. However, this is far from the truth. The Solemn League and Covenant signed between Parliament and the Scots required the reformation of religion in England and Ireland in doctrine, discipline and government. In other words, a Presbyterian form of church government was to be adopted. In August 1643 an ordinance was passed by Parliament for the utter demolishing, removing and taking away of all monuments of superstition and idolatry, and the following December a systematic implementation was ordered. This raised the opposition of many puritan parliamentarians, such as Windham. However, he had also been accused of undervaluing his estate when a levy was made in 1643 to raise money for the war, and it is this context that we need to understand his accusations against Jubbes, who was certainly not an unruly trooper. Neither was Daniel Axtell, Pickering’s first captain, who was a Baptist by background, one of a number in the regiment, and in the New Model Army, who rose from humble origins to positions of influence purely through ability and commitment to the parliamentarian cause.

023In the civil war, one of the great Puritan writers came to serve as Rector of Lavenham. William Gurnell, though lacking priest’s orders, was appointed by the Puritan lord of the manor and County Sheriff, Sir Symonds D’Ewes, an action sanctioned by parliament in 1644. During his thirty-three year incumbency he wrote one of the most famous Puritan devotional works, The Christian in Complete Armour, dedicated to my dearly beloved friends and neighbours, the inhabitants of Lavenham. However, the growth of fanatical millenarianism during the wars alarmed many moderate puritans within the Church. It was one thing to want to purify religion of superstitions and popish relics; it was quite another to show a total disrespect for churches, as did soldiers who used them for stables and fired muskets at ancient windows and monuments.

Two Suffolk men, William Dowsing of Laxfield and Matthew Hopkins of Great Wenham, became renowned for their fanaticism. Dowsing rose from obscurity when in August 1643 Parliament decreed that altars, candlesticks, pictures and images were to be removed from churches. Dowsing immediately came forward as one prepared, for the zeal of the Lord, to undertake this task and was appointed to the post of Parliamentary Visitor by the General of the Eastern Association. After creating havoc in Cambridgeshire he turned to his own county. Between January and October 1644 he toured Suffolk with a troop of soldiers. He smashed stained glass windows, defaced bench ends and carved fonts, broke down crucifixes, tore up brasses and obliterated inscriptions. In his disastrous rampage he visited a hundred and fifty churches, virtually at random, and carefully noted down in a journal the work of destruction. At Clare,

We broke down a thousand pictures superstitious. I broke down two hundred; three of God the Father and three of Christ and the Holy Lamb, and three of the Holy Ghost like a dove with wings; and the twelve Apostles were carved in wood, on the top of the roof, which we gave order to take down; and twenty cherubims to be taken down; and the sun and moon in the east window, by the King’s arms to be taken down.

Some parishes welcomed Dowsing and co-operated with him, but others, such as Ufford, put up a show of resistance, locked the church and tried to keep the desecrators at bay. Many churchwardens, even if sympathetic to Dowsing, resented having to pay the standard charge of 6s. 8d. for his visitation.

Matthew Hopkins was a far more sinister figure. As the Witch-Finder General, he could only thrive in a troubled time where in every community people were divided against each other, where loyalties clashed and where calamities were put down to supernatural agencies, where dislocations of the patterns of everyday life had driven many to the brink of mental breakdown, and where the exponents of an introspective religion held sway. Hopkins became famous after he supposedly uncovered a witches’ coven near Manningtree. He was asked to examine men and women, usually the latter, suspected of having familiar spirits. For three years he toured Suffolk and neighbouring counties applying his tests and supervising the resulting 106 executions in Suffolk alone.

The supposed witches were stripped, stuck with pins, denied food and rest, and made to walk until their feet were cut and blistered. If they still didn’t confess, they were swum, having their thumbs and toes tied together and then being dragged through the local pond in a sheet. If they sank, they were innocent, but probably drowned anyway. If they floated, they were in league with the devil. As a contemporary complained,

Every old woman, with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a ragged coat on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.

Eventually, poetic justice caught up with the Witchfinder-General, who was, himself, tried for witchcraft in 1647 and hung.

The placing of the county on a military footing was another cause of discontent. Soldiers were billeted on townspeople without payment. They took provisions from these homes, from local shops and ransacked the houses of the gentry for arms and plate. A visit of one Parliamentary troop at Somerleyton House in 1642 cost Sir John Wentworth forty-four pounds in various appropriations plus a hundred and sixty pounds of gold. The local militias were expected to train every week and provide their own equipment and the county as a whole had to pay 1,250 pounds for the maintenance of the army. All this the people were expected to suffer gladly for the sake of their own defence.

035After their victory at Marston Moor in the summer of 1644, in which the Association army was hard hit, being reduced from fourteen thousand men to about six thousand, the remaining troops were quatered in several towns in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire during the winter of 1644-5. These garrisons, just beyond the Association’s borders, were facing the royalist capital at Oxford. At this time the conflict between those who believed that the war could be won and those, like Manchester, who did not want to defeat the King, ultimately led to the success of the parliamentarian cause. The success of Independents in the Association armies enabled the creation of a new standing army committed to outright victory. In January 1645 the Committee of Both Kingdoms recommended the formation of a new army of twenty-two thousand men, to be supported by a levy of six thousand pounds a month on those districts controlled by Parliament. This New Model Army, established in April, was placed under the overall command of Sir Thomas Fairfax with Philip Skippon as Sergeant Major General. Cromwell was nominated as Lieutenant General of the Horse on the eve of the Battle of Naseby, and did not become Commander-in-Chief until June 1650.

The New Model was formed from the existing units of the armies of Essex, Manchester and Waller, but these had been so seriously depleted by the campaigns of 1644 that they could supply only seven thousand of the required fourteen thousand infantry alone. Therefore, new regiments had to be created, under committed officers like Pickering and Montague. Nevertheless, when the list of officers for the New Model was debated in parliament, Pickering, that fanatical Independent, had his name struck out by the Lords, along with that of Montague and others. They went further than this by striking out the whole of the most radical regiment from the forces of parliament, since Manchester was determined to purge his personal enemies from the New Model. However, under pressure from the Commons, Fairfax’s original list was eventually passed by just one vote and Pickering’s became the twelfth regiment of the New Model Army.

Each regiment of foot had a nominal strength of twelve hundred men, and there were eleven cavalry regiments, each of six hundred. In addition, there were ten companies of dragoons, each of a hundred men. Of these, nine of the regiments of horse and four of the infantry came from the Eastern Association, a total of 3,578 men. However, many of the foot regiments, including Pickering’s, were seriously under strength, and had to impress men from the areas through which the army marched. Several thousand men were conscripted into the New Model at this time, nearly all of them impressed, untrained, raw recruits. When the New Model set forth on its first campaign it was still four thousand men short, but did begin to look like an instrument that, by its professionalism, courage and discipline, would bring Parliament victory.

Pickering took up his new command at Abingdon, where his regiment still waited in winter quarters. The administrative system of the Association had been unable to raise adequate resources to cover the cost of maintaining the regiment over the previous ten months, a sum of more than four and a half thousand pounds. As a result, the pay to the regiment had fallen into arrears. These problems did not improve, even after transfer to the New Model. For forty-two days in April and May 1645 the regiment was without any pay, undoubtedly a factor in the mutiny of April that occurred when Colonel Pickering preached a sermon to his troops, following the confirmation of his command of the regiment. However, according to a royalist broadsheet, it was Pickering’s condemnation of Presbyterianism which some of the men most objected to, having joined from other regiment less Independent in religious character. Parliament instructed Fairfax that preaching in the army in future was only to be in the ministry of authorised chaplains, and Henry Pinnell was appointed to the regiment. He was an Independent, but also politically moderate, in favour of the Army reaching an agreement with the King. Nevertheless, Pickering continued to be admired for his views by most in the regiment, as well as the townspeople of Newport Pagnall.
On 1st May 1645, Fairfax’s army marched into the west, leaving Cromwell and the four former Eastern Association regiments to join him later around Oxford when the new recruits were fully trained. Cromwell himself was already involved in an attempt to clear several smaller garrisons around Oxford, including Bletchington House and Faringdon Castle, which was then in Berkshire. Pickering’s regiment was sent from Abingdon to Faringdon, where Captain Jenkins was killed, along with fourteen others. It numbered around five to six hundred by this time. The attack was abortive, for even with infantry Cromwell did not have the means for a decisive assault, and the garrison remained in royalist hands until June 1646.
021On 14th May, Fairfax began to lay siege to Oxford and Pickering was with the army at Southam in Warwickshire in late May. Hewson was in carrying arms and surgeons’ equipment to the siege of Oxford.   Following the fall of Leicester to the royalist army on 31st May, Cromwell was dispatched to secure Ely. Pickering’s, however, remained with Fairfax, marching from Oxford on 5th June, and then following the King’s Army, which was retreating from Daventry on 13th June,   reaching Market Harborough, where that night Charles decided to turn and engage the New Model.

006The royalists marched south on the morning of the 14th June and the two armies met at Naseby in Northamptonshire. Pickering’s were positioned at the centre of the parliamentarian front line. Here, the Royalist infantry began the battle well, and forced the Parliamentary regiments back, concentrating their attack against their left and centre, in support of Prince Rupert’s successful cavalry charge, which caused Ireton’s cavalry to veer to the right. Rupert charged into Ireton’s left, and then began to cut and thrust with sword. He forced his way through, and was then in a position to re-group: instead, he decided to press on, but achieved little, and though anxious not to repeat his mistake at Edgehill, was still absent from the battlefield for some time. This was, again, disastrous for his side. Cromwell launched a tremendous cavalry charge on the right, smashing into Langdale’s cavalry, slowed by difficult ground on the royalist left. As Astley’s foot stormed their way up Red Hill Ridge, they came under attack from Ireton’s recovering cavalry, supported by a mounted charge from Okey’s dragoons. As Astley’s troops reached Skippon’s foot, they not only met spirited resistance from the Parliamentary infantry, but also received a terrible blow on the other flank from Cromwell’s cavalry.

027 By the time Rupert returned to the field, his horses blown, he could only watch as Astley’s infantry were wiped out completely, four thousand of them, either killed or captured. Total Royalist losses were a thousand, with four-and-a-half thousand captured. With the King and Rupert having already left the field, the remaining Royalist infantry also tried to leave the field, with only Langdale’s cavalry fighting on.

This was the most decisive battle of the first civil war and Charles should never have fought it. He lost his infantry, his baggage train, his artillery, his private papers and, effectively, his throne. Outnumbered two to one, fourteen thousand to seven, short of cavalry and artillery, the Royalist had severely underestimated their opponents, raw recruits as many of them were, and paid dearly for it. Although initially forced to retreat by the assault on their centre and left, Pickering’s and Montague’s had done so lyke men, in good order. While Skippon’s more hardened troops had held the centre, they fell into the Reserves with their Colours, choosing there to fight and die, than to quit the ground they stood on. Together with the Reserves, Pickering’s and Montague’s remaining men had then rallied and moved forward to join Skippon’s, who were being steadily pushed back by the Royalist advance. The Roundhead charge did little to ease the pressure, especially when Ireton himself was wounded and taken prisoner. It was only after the rally of Pickering’s and Montague’s regiments, together with the calling up of the reserve, that the Parliamentarian infantry centre’s greatly superior numbers began to tell.

012So it was that Pickering’s took part in the final destruction of the Royalist infantry, deciding the outcome of the Battle of Naseby and the first Civil War. Captain Tomkins was killed, and estimates at the time put the Parliamentarian losses at between fifty and a hundred. A further fifty of Pickering’s men were seriously wounded, four dying later from their wounds. Two hundred more from the other infantry regiments were also seriously wounded.

The New Model then marched on to Leicester, which refused to yield, and Newark, where the Royalists surrendered on the 18th. After taking Leicester on their return, the New Model then secured Warwickshire and Gloucestershire before moving against the Royalist strongholds in the West Country. Following a further victory at Langport on 10th July, Bristol fell on 10th September, and Devizes a fortnight later. Laycock followed a few days later, followed by Winchester on 5th October. There was then a long siege of Basing House in Hampshire, which finally fell in mid-October, then Longford near Salisbury, leaving only Corfe Castle as the only remaining substantial Royalist garrison left between London and Exeter. Troops were needed to reinforce both the garrison at Abingdon and those besieging Exeter, so it wasn’t until March 1646 that the castle finally fell.

The Parliamentarian forces then comprehensively slighted it, so that the Cavaliers could not use it again. Pickering’s regiment played a role in most, if not all, of these sieges, though it had moved on to Ottery St Mary in the winter of 1645-6, a small market town ten miles from Exeter. Pickering himself arrived ahead of his regiment, on 12th November, as his legal expertise was needed in securing the surrender of the city.

033During the Civil War there were probably more soldiers who died of disease than on the battlefield. Plague had been rife in and around Bristol when it had been captured in September, but the Parliamentary troops had escaped its ravages. However, they then fell prey to influenza, probably brought with them from the city, though it had taken a month for it to take hold among their ranks. The foot, quartered in Ottery St Mary, were the worst hit, with as many as nine soldiers and townspeople dying on a daily basis. Many soldiers were already weak from lack of good supplies and arrears of pay. Pickering himself fell ill on 24th November 1645, just before his thirtieth birthday:

Col. Pickering, that pious, active Gentleman, that lived so much to God, and his Country and divers other Officers, dyed of the New disease in that place; Six of the generals own family were sick of it at one time, and throughout the foot regiments half the souldiers…

The whereabouts of the Colonel’s burial is unknown, but it is likely that he would have been buried in Lyme Regis, in accordance with the wishes of his elder brother and MP, Sir Gilbert Pickering, as well as those of Cromwell and Fairfax. These are recorded in a letter from Cromwell to Colonel Creely, the commander of the nearest parliamentary garrison written from Tiverton on 10th December. Major Jubbes, of Norwich, took responsibility for the arrangements. The high esteem in which many parliamentarians held Pickering can be seen in the various obituaries in the newsheets of the time. One of them is accompanied by a eulogy, far less eloquent than his cousin, John Dryden, later poet laureate, might have produced, but he was only fourteen at that time:

… Black Autumn fruits to cinders turne;

Birds cease to sing, our joy is fled,

‘Cause glorious Pickering is dead,

Let time contract the Earth and Skie,

To recommend thy memorie

To future ages…

Sprigge devotes a whole poem to a poem on his death, which he entitled Iohannes Pickering: In God I Reckon Happiness. By comparison, Dryden’s first published work, in 1659, was also to be a eulogy, A Poem upon the death of his late Highness, Oliver, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. As a close associate of Cromwell within the Eastern Association, John Pickering was in an ideal position to establish a regiment that mirrored his own religious and political views. It was, after all, not just the Colonel, but also the whole regiment that drew criticism from the Presbyterians in Parliament. It was his deep religious conviction, some said fanaticism, which gave him strength, courage and commitment both in combat and negotiation. In these virtues, he was typical of the men who brought about the revolution in liberties of conscience, which was a distinctive element in the civil wars of the middle to late seventeenth century. Like Cromwell, he saw himself as one of God’s Englishmen.

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After Pickering’s death, his Lieutenant Colonel, John Hewson took command of the regiment, and his advancement heralded the increasing authoritarianism of the revolution as the country moved towards a form of military dictatorship. In May 1647 the Presbyterian Parliament attempted to break up the military power-base of Independency, requiring the New Model Army regiments either to disband or to volunteer for the campaign in Ireland. Hewson’s regiment refused, as did others. Lieutenant Colonel Jubbes, the Norwich Baptist, together with Major Axtell and two other agitators prepared a statement of the regiment’s grievances. In June, as political debate developed and intensified in the army, some of the regiment were already committed to the Leveller cause. Two of the six authors of A Letter from the Army to the honest Seamen of England, of 21st June 1647, were from Hewson’s. They were Captains Brayfield and Carter. A third, Azuriah Husbands, had been a Captain in the regiment, and some of its ordinary soldiers also signed it.

John Jubbes, in his statement at the Putney debates on 1st November 1647, called for political reforms extending well beyond mere army grievances. Jubbes took a conciliatory position between the Independents and the Levellers, seeking even to bring the more libertarian Presbyterians into an agreement. The same position was taken by the regiment’s chaplain, Henry Pinnell, who had published his own proposals, which while radical in general nature, included a reconciliation with the King. For Jubbes, as for many who later became Quakers, the war had encouraged pacifist views in him. He came to see the real conflict as being between the slavery of the sword and the Peace of Christ. In April 1648, having lost the argument in the regiment, as it had been lost at Putney in the army as a whole; Jubbes laid down his sword and picked up his pen. He was disillusioned with the course the revolution was taking, believing that the cause of liberty of conscience was being sacrificed to that of the authority of the Grandees of the New Model. He became associated with a sect of religious radicals with millenarian ideas, confidently looking forward to the imminent personal reign of Christ on earth, following His second coming.

In attitude and ideas, Hewson differed markedly from both Pickering and Jubbes. Although, like Cromwell, an Independent, he had expressed a typically authoritarian view about the Levellers in the army, suggesting that military tribunals rather than civil courts should deal them with. We can hang twenty before they will hang one, he pointed out. For him, as for Cromwell and Ireton, whatever the political merits of the Levellers’ case, which they had listened to patiently and responded to sympathetically within the Army Council at Putney Church, they could not be allowed to undermine military discipline through constant arguing and petitioning. It is in this context that we need to understand both Hewson’s remark and Cromwell’s later statement to one of his Colonels, you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you… Daniel Axtell, another fierce Independent, replaced Jubbes as Lieutenant Colonel, while John Carter became Major, despite his Leveller sympathies.   The regiment was involved in Pride’s Purge of the Presbyterian MPs in Parliament in December 1648, during the Second Civil War.

The harsh new laws of the Presbyterian Long Parliament had also transformed the sympathies of many ordinary people in the country. In Suffolk in 1648 there was a serious riot in Bury St Edmund’s when the authorities tried to prevent the hoisting of a maypole. The local arsenal was seized and people rushed through the streets shouting, For God and King Charles! The outburst was contained, but there were also similar risings in Aldeburgh and Lowestoft. Suffolk was growing tired of war, of religious conflict and of political maneuverings between the Army and Parliament. None of these made any difference to the problems of the cloth industry, which was still declining, or to the harbours of the East Anglian ports, which were still silting up. There were still thousands of people living at bare subsistence level in thatched, rat-infested hovels.

In the second war, which ended with the surrender of the royalist troops at Colchester, Hewson’s had faced the Kentish royalists and bore the brunt of the fighting at the storming of Maidstone. Fairfax wrote, I cannot but take notice of the valour and resolution of Col. Hewson, whose Regiment had the hardest task. Major Carter was injured and Captain Price, a deserving and faithfull Officer, was killed. The regiment had gone on to suppress the rising in Kent, recapturing the castles at Deal, Walmer and Sandown. Hewson was a judge at the King’s trial in January 1649, also signing the death warrant, while Axtell commanded the guard at the king’s execution. In April 1649 Hewson’s were chosen, by lot, to go to Ireland with three existing and six new regiments. While in Ireland, they took part in many of the major actions and the most notorious, particularly at Drogheda, where they were at the centre of the atrocities against the royalist troops who refused to surrender.

Hewson later became Governor of Dublin, member of the Council of State and an MP. He was knighted by Cromwell and described after the Restoration as an arch-radical and religious zealot. However, he did not approve of what he called the usurpation of the General and opposed Cromwell from within the Protectorate, at some personal risk. By the end of the interregnum, the regiment was commanded by John Streeter, undoubtedly the same soldier who drew the battlefield of Naseby (above). It took part in the last land action of the Commonwealth, finding itself fighting against its original first captain and later Lieutenant Colonel, Daniel Axtell. He had joined Major-General Lambert in an attempt to reimpose military government. On 22nd April 1660 Lambert’s forces were confronted and routed at Daventry in Northamptonshire, close to the battlefields of Edgehill and Naseby. Axtell escaped, but was later captured and eventually executed by Charles II’s government, as a regicide. At the Restoration, Hewson fled to the continent where he died in Amsterdam in 1662. The regiment which was raised in 1643, and first served in East Anglia as a major force in the Eastern Association in April 1644, was not disbanded until October 1660, and even then four of its companies being sent to form the garrison at Hull. By then, it had served longer than any other Parliamentarian regiment.

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John Pickering’s elder brother, lord of the manor and baronet, Sir Gilbert Pickering, had been elected as an MP for Northamptonshire to the Short Parliament of 1640. He raised, though he did not command, a dragoon regiment in eastern Northamptonshire. He was appointed commissioner and judge in the trial of Charles Stuart, though wisely attended only two sittings, and did not sign the death warrant. During the Commonwealth he rose to a position of considerable national influence, as a member of the Council of State and as a Commissioner in various posts. Finally in 1655 he was appointed Lord Chamberlain to the Lord Protector. It was only due to the intervention of his brother-in-law, Edward Montague, Earl of Sandwich, that Gilbert obtained a pardon from Charles II.

Gilbert Pickering was described after the Restoration as first a Presbyterian, then an Independent, then a Brownist, and afterwards an Anabaptist. Although coming from his enemies, this statement does perhaps describe the process of radicalisation that many of his class went through in the thirty years of conflict in the reign of Charles I and in the interregnum. The Pickering family had long been known for their strong Puritan beliefs, reflecting the strength of these views in eastern Northamptonshire, which had developed rapidly and become strongly entrenched in the Peterborough diocese during the second half of the sixteenth century, as elsewhere in the southeast Midlands and East Anglia. Robert Browne, whose Brownism developed into the Independent form of puritanism that in turn led to Congregationalism, was Rector of Thorpe Achurch, only three miles north of Titchmarsh, from 1591 to 1630. The Pickerings were therefore very close to one of the main centres of Puritan Dissent, forced out of the Church of England during the 1630s by Archbishop Laud and his supporters, and into the manor houses of sympathetic families like the Pickerings and then across the countryside and market towns until it found its way into the regiments of the Eastern Association and the New Model Army. Therefore, the history of the Pickering family and their relatives also describes and explains the history of much of the Midlands and East Anglia during the seventeenth century.

023However, the rather disparaging view of him as a Committee man responsible for sequestration was quite unfair, as was the attempt to paint him as a most furious, fiery, implacable man… the principal agent in casting out most of the learned clergy. This assessment comes from the papers of Jeremiah Stevens, Rector of Quinton and Wootton in Northants, who was sequestered in 1644. In 1656, a very different temperament from the conciliatory role undertaken by the MP and Lord Chamberlain in the parliamentary proceedings undertaken against James Nayler, the Quaker, who stood accused of blasphemy. Nayler, a farmer from Yorkshire, had fought for Parliament at the Battle of Dunbar in the second civil war, in September 1650, where his preaching was remembered long after by those who heard it, both ordinary soldiers and officers alike, as well as by the country folk:

 013After the Battle of Dunbar, as I was riding in Scotland at the head of my troop, I observed at some distance from the road a crowd of people, and one higher than the rest. Upon which I sent one of my men to see and bring me word what was the meaning of this gathering. Seeing him ride up and stay there without returning according to my order, I sent a second, who stayed in like manner, and then I determined to go myself. When I came thither, I found it was James Nayler preaching to the people, but with such power and reaching energy as I had not till then been witness of. I could not help staying there a little, though I was afraid to stay, for I was made a Quaker, being forced to tremble at the sight of myself. I was struck with more terror before the preaching of James Nayler than I was before the Battle of Dunbar, when we had nothing else to expect but to fall prey to the swords of our enemies…

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However, James Nayler’s six years of missionary journeys, of eloquent and victorious evangelism, of loyal co-operation with colleagues, were all forgotten when he appeared before Parliament in 1656 accused of horrid blasphemy and of being a grand imposter and seducer of the people. He is still remembered for the six months of his disgrace, and as the fallen apostle of Quakerism, while his contemporary George Fox is seen as its chief Founder. Nayler was born in 1618, in a village two miles from Wakefield in Yorkshire, where he married and lived from 1639. After having three children there, he joined the parliamentary army in 1643, serving in Fairfax’s regiment, before becoming Quartermaster in Lambert’s Regiment of Horse, a position which he held until the decisive Battle of Worcester in 1651, after which Charles II (only of Scotland at that time) fled to France. After that conclusive battle, there was no longer any need for an army in the field. According to Cromwell, Lambert’s Horse bore the brunt of the battle, the best of the Enemy’s Horse being broken through and through in less than an hour’s dispute.

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As Quartermaster, it would have been Nayler’s task to feed the ten thousand who were taken prisoner, especially the Scots. The half who were English were sent home due to the impossibility of providing for them. At his trial, Major-General Lambert gave testimony that he was a very useful person – we parted from him with great regret. He was a man of unblameable life and conversation. Lambert’s statement bears out Nayler’s own testimony to his judges that I was never taxed for any mutiny or any other thing while I served the Parliament.

 

In 1651 Nayler returned to his family in broken health, both physical and mental. A victim of consumption, he settled on a small farm near Wakefield. Lambert recalled that he became a member of a very sweet society of an Independent Church.

Although Presbyterianism had been established in England by ordinance in 1648, at the end of the second civil war, it was by no means popular and had not filled the place of the Church of England. Many parish ministers were relatively free to belong to different denominations, and/or to follow the promptings of their congregations. After a meeting with George Fox, Nayler decided to leave home to follow his calling as an evangelist, though he found it very difficult to leave his wife and children again, having just returned after nine years. His ministry took Nayler to the West Country where, while not in prison, he gathered a large number of followers around him. However, he came into conflict with Fox and, when his attempts to effect a reconciliation were rebuffed, he became deeply depressed to the point of appearing morose.

024It was in a deeply contemplative state that he set off for Bristol, in the middle of October 1656, from Glastonbury, in the pouring rain, with a small procession of Friends. He was riding a horse and on either side a woman led his horse by the bridle, walking knee-deep in the mud, when they could have walked along the sides of the ancient bridleway. Passers-by found the sight utterly bizarre, even before the company reached Bristol. As they reached the Radcliffe Gate of the City, the procession began shouting and singing a psalm, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel, removing their wet cloaks and throwing them in front of the horse, with Nayler still being led on it, as if in a transe. Between two and three in the afternoon they passed the High Cross, where it seemed as if the whole city had turned out to see the strange spectacle. After arriving at their inn, the Magistrates sent an escort for them and they were brought, still singing, to the Guildhall for examination.

After a brief, preliminary examination, they were imprisoned, despite Nayler possession of a pass from Cromwell himself. At the second examination, it became clear that, whatever interpretation his followers placed on their actions, he regarded himself simply as a symbol of Christ and the triumphal entry simply a sign of his second coming.

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However, two of the women in his congregation claimed that Nayler was indeed Jesus, one claiming that Nayler had raised her to life after she had been dead for two days. Under these circumstances, the Bench had no alternative but to send the group back to jail. The Bristol Magistrates then wrote to their MP. The second Parliament of the Protectorate had been sitting for only a month when this MP presented his report from the magistrates of his constituency. The case which came before them for judgement was so serious, so pregnant with consequences for both Church and State, that they felt incompetent to deal with it. The basis of it was that on the 14th October, a parody of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem had been enacted in Bristol, not from any spirit of mockery, but in the steadfast belief of those present that a second Messiah had appeared in England. Letters found upon the chief prisoner gave further evidence of this blasphemous delusion, and, since a pass from the Lord Protector himself was among these letters, the magistrates had decided to keep him and his companions in custody until they could ascertain the pleasure of Parliament. The House had now decided to undertake the third examination themselves and then to sentence the prisoners.

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Meanwhile, the entry into Bristol had become a nine days’ wonder, and the talk not only of London, but of every corner of the country into which Quakerism had penetrated. Nayler appeared before a Parliamentary Committee, and answered their questions clearly and to their satisfaction. With nothing further to examine, on 5th December the Committee made its report to the House. In spite of its careful purging, this second and last Parliament of Cromwell’s Protectorate was composed of many warring and irreconcilable elements, upon which the prisoner acted as a touch stone. His most vocal prosecutor was Sir George Downing, who gave his name to Downing Street. Four years later he was to make his peace with the new king by betraying his Parliamentary associates, including Sir Gilbert Pickering. Downing and the Extremists were opposed by the Merciful Party, including Pickering, Desborough and Lambert, Nayler’s old commanding officer, who gave his character reference, adding that the trial was very much sorrow of my heart. Major-General Desborough, in command of the Western counties, had come into contact with the best side of Quakerism, had witnessed Fox’s heroic temper in Launceston prison. Desborough used all his influence to moderate the harsh temper of the House. He argued that it should be handed over to the lawyers, to whose province it rightly belonged. However, the temper of the House was already one of heated debate, since Nayler was already present to hear the Committee’s report, and the Major-General’s advice was largely ignored. Westminster Hall had been the setting for the dramatic trial of Charles I, almost exactly eight years previously, and many of those sitting in judgement on Nayler had been present when the King had faced his avenging subjects. Perhaps some felt that they could now balance the scales of extreme justice, and even avenge the royal martyr, even if they dared not speak openly of this, even in Parliament.

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Nayler did not present himself, in Carlyle’s later description, as a mad Quaker, and again emphasised that his act had been purely symbolic of Christ’s second coming, which had not yet been fulfilled. However, either through ignorance or obdurance, Downing and others maintained their aggressivity towards Nayler and his beliefs. Other more gentle voices were raised on the prisoner’s behalf, especially by those who, through personal acquaintance with the Quakers, had studied and discussed with them their doctrine of the Inner Light. Among them was that of Sir Gilbert Pickering, who defended himself and the merciful party as having the same zeal for God, yet haply they may not have the same appetite to give sentence in these things, without special tenderness respecting the sad consequences. This view came close to that of the Lord Protector, whose impatience with this Parliament over this case was based on his view that it should uphold a spirit of toleration in the country by providing for liberty of conscience for the tender-hearted, even when they were in error. However, at dinner that night with the diarist Burton, Richard Cromwell was clear that Nayler ought to die. However, Nayler’s punishment was a matter for the House to decide, not the Lord Protector or his son, soon to inherit the title.

When Parliament met to impose punishment, Sir Gilbert Pickering interposed again with a plea for hard labour and imprisonment, as he had learnt from a very sober man of that sect that Nayler was bewitched, really bewitched, and his words were not to be heeded. Imprisonment would be a charity in keeping him from that party that bewitched him. It was resolved by a narrow majority of 96 to 82 votes that the prisoner’s life should be spared. On December 17th, after further debate, they came to the following resolution:

That James Nayler be set upon the pillory… in the Palace-Yard, Westminster, during the space of two hours, on Thursday next, and be whipped by the hangman through the streets, from Westminster to the Old Exchange, London: and there likewise be set upon the pillory… for the space of two hours… on Saturday next, in each place wearing a paper bearing the inscription of his crimes; and that at the Old Exchange his tongue be bored through with a hot iron and that there also be stigmatised in the forehead the letter B; and that he be afterwards sent to Bristol and be conveyed into and through the said city on horseback, with his face backward; and there also publicly whipped the next market day… and that from thence he be committed to prison in Bridewell, London, and there restrained from the society of all people, and there to labour hard, till he be released by Parliament; and during that time be debarred the use of pen, ink, and paper, and shall have no relief but what he earns by daily labour.

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On May 26th 1657, Sir Gilbert Pickering brought Nayler’s case again before the House. The Protector had been informed of Nayler’s poor state of health, and it was at his recommendation that Parliament was now asked to provide a keeper or nurse to wait upon him. Fearful of showing too much sympathy for the prisoner, Sir Gilbert recalled him as that reckless person Nayler. However, he was quite unable to preserve this air of detachment when Cromwell’s proposal met opposition. If you care not for him, he continued angrily, so as to let him have a keeper, he will die in your hands. Whether it was Cromwell’s wish or Pickering’s indignation which inclined the House to this unaccustomed show of humanity, there was no opposition to the proposal when put to the vote, and it was carried, with the suggestion that the Keeper should be a Quaker, that he might not infect others with the plague. It was then stated that his Highness further desired a minister to be sent to Nayler, for the truth is, he is very weak.

This was also agreed to. William Tomlinson, his devoted Friend throughout his punishment in London, became his Keeper, and the Governer also appointed a female nurse, Joane Pollard, to minister to his medical needs, alongside the Matron of Bridewell Hospital. Cromwell and Pickering had combined to soften the hearts of both Parliament and the prison governers. The brave, humanitarian action of Pickering in particular, seems at odds with the description of him after the Restoration. Perhaps it was his determination to oppose the hard-line attitude of Downing’s party, together with his earlier action against Laudian ministers in his county, which resulted in him being branded as a fanatical hothead by his enemies after the Restoration, but it is difficult to imagine that the sympathies he showed towards Nayler would not have also led him to be tolerant of protestant believers and ministers of a less Independent persuasion than his own. He may have been a Committee Man, and passionate about his Independency in faith and politics, but he also showed that that meant he was determined to support Cromwell’s view that liberty of conscience should extend to Presbyterians and tender-hearted sectaries alike.

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The youngest son, Edward Pickering, was born in 1618. He was also educated as a lawyer, at Lincoln’s Inn, but played no significant role in the war. ‘Ned’, as his friends affectionately knew him, was a companion of Samuel Pepys and is frequently described in Pepys’ Diary. Apparently, Ned did not maintain the same Nonconformist religious beliefs and practices as his brothers after the Restoration, and was less of an Independent in political views too. Probably influenced by Edward Montague, he travelled to the continent in 1660 to swear allegiance to Charles II before his return to England. Even after the Restoration, as late as the 1670s, Lady Pickering was still holding Congregationalist meetings in the manor house at Titchmarsh. However, though the Pickerings may have continued to hold to their puritan beliefs, they did not support the social levelling supported by John Lilburne and others.

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Neither were they averse to indulging in the finer aspects of courtly life in London, as Samuel Pepys (above) records for the 29th October 1660, The Lord Mayor’s Day. This was an occasion for quite a gathering of friends and family, including the wife of Edward Montague, Lady Sandwich, her children, and Lady Pickering, wife of Sir Gilbert and Montague’s sister. They went shopping for draperies in St Paul’s and Cheapside, where they found an ideal vantage point on the quayside to watch the parades and pageants with a company of fine ladies. The gentlemen continued to enjoy their sports. Eight years later, on 11th December, Pepys and his clerk and life-long friend Hewer met up with Ned Pickering in Smithfield to watch horse-riding, observing all the afternoon… the knaveries and tricks of jockys. However, Pepys had to be careful in meeting the jockys, especially one whose wife he desired but dare not see, for my vow to my wife. He came away with his friends having done nothing except concluded upon giving fifty pounds for a fine pair of black horses.

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The Pickerings were very much in the same mould as their Fenland neighbours, the Cromwells, prepared to challenge the religious and political order, but staunchly conservative with regard to the social order, and with an eye to property when determining who should have the right to decide on the government of the day. Although given the title God’s Englishman by Christopher Hill in his biography, Oliver Cromwell was, in fact, the grandson of a third-generation Welshman named Richard Williams, whose grandfather was said to have accompanied Henry Tudor to London in 1485. He settled in Putney and married his son, Morgan, to the daughter of the local blacksmith, Walter Cromwell. Walter’s brother was Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s great Chancellor, the hammer of the monks. In tribute, Morgan Williams’ son Richard decided to use his mother’s family name and became a firm supporter of the Reformation. Oliver’s mother was Elizabeth Steward, whose great-uncle was the last Prior of the Abbey of Ely and also became the first Protestant Dean of the Cathedral. He was Elizabeth Steward’s great-uncle, and was persuaded to throw in his lot with the Reformation by Sir Richard Cromwell. Oliver’s maternal grandfather and uncle continued to farm the manors of Ely Cathedral.*

As a result of their dissolution, Sir Richard Cromwell acquired the lands of three abbeys, two priories and the nunnery of Hinchingbrooke. He married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London, as did his son, Sir Henry, who also represented his county in the House of Commons and was four times sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. His son, Sir Oliver, who also became an MP and a high sheriff, was the uncle of Oliver Cromwell. Old Sir Oliver spent much of the family fortune in entertaining King James V of Scotland on his royal progress to being crowned James I in 1603. Like Sir John Harington of Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, he got little in return for providing such lavish hospitality to the Stuart family. He had to sell the great house to the Montague family. Like John Pickering, Oliver Cromwell’s father Robert was a second son, and therefore received little of Sir Oliver’s patrimony anyway. So, Oliver was born into a comparatively modest house in Huntingdon, which had been part of the St. John’s Hospital. Later, Oliver was to inherit some of the church manors of the Dean and Chapter of Ely. Like John Pickering, he would have grown up conscious of being a poor relation. However, he was related to most of the powerful gentry families of East Anglia and the Midlands, including the Knightleys and the Fiennes, into which the Golafre family had married in early Tudor times. These cousinly connections, together with the puritan education many of the sons of the gentry received in Cambridge, were what enabled a growing network of the Country opposition to Charles’ rule to emerge in the 1630s and, in parliament, in the 1640s. When Oliver took up his seat in the House of Commons in 1628, he was one of ten cousins there.

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Looking back, historians have tended to see the breach with the Levellers at Burford in 1649 as the turning point of the Revolution. But for Oliver, 1653 was undoubtedly the high point. After the failure of the Barebones Parliament, his high hopes of uniting God’s Englishmen in government had gone. He now saw himself as a constable whose task was to prevent Englishmen from flying at each other’s throats. He was forced back on the support of an Army purged of radicals, an Army which in the last resort had to be paid by taxes collected from the propertied classes, the natural rulers of the countryside. So, by 1653 the Revolution was effectively over and the Lord Protector, General Cromwell was the saviour of propertied society. The radicals had been driven from Westminster, the City and the Army in 1653, and the trading monopolies were still in control of the mercantile economy. The conservative generals, including Lambert, Montague and Desborough, formed Cromwell’s Council, together with the baronets, including Sir Gilbert Pickering. Other advisers included Nathanial Fiennes, son of Lord Saye and Sele. Cromwell’s plans for unity were no longer restricted to the Independent party, whose leader he had been: He saw his task now as being to unite the nation. To the radicals Oliver was now, finally its lost leader. Lilburne, Wildman, Sexby and other remaining Levellers turned to negotiations with the royalists, rather than acceptance of the new régime. Baptists, Quakers and Congregationalists never forgave him for reneging on promises to abolish tithes.

The Welsh Fifth Monarchist, Vavasour Powell greeted the Protectorate by asking his congregation whether the Lord would have Oliver Cromwell or Jesus Christ to reign over us?

However, the actual composition of Cromwell’s council, no less than the powers given to it and to the parliament by The Instrument, drafted by General Lambert, make it difficult to characterise the Protectorate as a military dictatorship, as it so often has been. Ten of the eighteen members were, in fact, civilians, and only Lambert, Fleetwood, Skippon and Desborough were members of the field army. Montague had last commanded a regiment in 1645, and the three others, although having some military duties, were administrators rather than soldiers. A simple head count, however, can be misleading, since civilians like Sir Gilbert Pickering often supported the military members, while Colonel Montague, later General at Sea, tended to oppose it. The council contained men of diverse and independent views, including Sir Gilbert Pickering, and was unlikely to act collectively as a rubber stamp to dictatorship, and nor did it.

Cromwell certainly wielded immense personal authority, and he would never have become Lord Protector had he not been Lord General. But he had a genuine aversion to dictatorial power, and the constitution was genuinely designed to prevent this. The army party reached its peaks of influence when Cromwell accepted the Instrument of Government and during the rule of the major-generals, but he signalled his disillusionment with it in a speech that he made to the hundred officers in February 1657. Thereafter, the exclusion of Lambert shifted the balance decisively against the military faction, and the trouble that the grandees made for Richard Cromwell in the spring of 1659 does not testify to their continuing ascendancy, but rather to the desperation of defeated men.

After the dissolution of the Long Parliament in March 1660, the Royalist historian Clarendon records that the council of state did many prudent actions, the most important of which was the reform of the navy, which was full of sectaries and under the government of those who of all men were declared the most republican. The fleet was under the command of Vice-Admiral Lawson, an excellent seaman, but then a notorious Anabaptist; who had filled the fleet with officers and mariners of the same principles. Nevertheless, the Rump Parliament owed its restoration to his successful siege of the City, so he stood high in reputation with all that party and they were therefore unable to remove him from power. Instead, they decided to eclipse him, that he should not have it so absolutely in his power to control them. So, they called up Sir Edward Montague, who had retired to his own house in Cambridgeshire, under a cloud, and made him joint-admiral. Montague accepted the commission on the conditions that he alone would have charge of recruiting new officers and men for the ships to be added to the fleet, and that he would have oversight of the rest, reforming them as he saw necessary. He sent a secret message to the king in exile, asking for his approval, before finally accepting the office and returning to London, where he immediately set to work in putting the fleet in so good order that he might comfortably serve in it. Clarendon goes on to praise Montague by asserting that there was no good man who betook himself to his majesty’s service with more generosity than this gentleman.

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Montague was from a noble family, which was a rival of the Cromwell family, having bought the House at Hinchingbrooke from Oliver’s grandfather, who had impoverished his family by the lavish hospitality he had shown to James I. However, Oliver and Edward became firm allies from the early years of the First Civil War, perhaps because the former was always destined to be a poor relation, as the son of a second son, but inherited his uncle’s lands in the Chapter of Ely anyway when he died childless. Clarendon records that the Montague family was too much addicted to innovations in religion, though Edward went against his father in opposing Charles I, since Sir Sidney had been a long-serving courtier and never could be prevailed upon to swerve from his allegiance to the crown, taking great care to restrain his only son within those limits. However, being young, and more out of his father’s control by being married into a family which, at that time, also trod away, he was so far wrought upon by the caresses of Cromwell, that, out of pure affection to him, he was persuaded to take command in the army when it was new modelled under Fairfax, and when he was little more than twenty years of age.

Montague served in the army, as Colonel of his regiment, until the end of the war, with the reputation of a very stout and sober young man, who … passionately adhered to Cromwell. The Lord-General took him into his closest confidence and sent him on several expeditions by sea, in sole command, which were very successful for both the Commonwealth and Edward’s career in it.

011Although perceived as devoted to Cromwell’s interests, he showed no acrimony towards any who had served Charles I, and was so much in love with monarchy that he was one of those who most desired and advised Cromwell to accept and assume that title, when it was offered to him by his parliament. Soon after the Convention Parliament decided to send the fleet to fetch Charles II from the Dutch United Provinces, the King had only been in the Hague for a few days when he heard that the English fleet was in sight of the port of Scheveningen. Shortly after that, an officer was sent by Admiral Montague to ask the King for orders. The Duke of York went on board the fleet to take possession of his command as High Admiral, where he was received by all the officers and seamen, with all possible duty and submission. He spent the whole day on board, receiving details of the state of the fleet, returning to the King that night, with the information. Montague therefore played a major part in ensuring the smooth transition of power to the Stuart restoration. Still in his thirties, he was to receive rich rewards for this throughout the reign of Charles II. Neither did he abandon his old friends and allies, ensuring that they too received royal pardon and patronage, provided that they had played no part in the regicide.

Of course, Oliver Cromwell himself could not be pardoned for the act which he himself had regarded as a cruel necessity. Although he was beyond temporal punishment, his bones were not allowed to rest in peace. In 1661 the Protector’s body was dug up, hung at Tyburn, decapitated and buried at the foot of the gallows. The head was stuck on a pole outside Westminster Hall and left to rot. It eventually came into the possession of a Suffolk family, a descendant of which, Canon Wilkinson of Woodbridge, arranged with the fellows of Cromwell’s old college at Cambridge, Sydney Sussex, that it should be given a decent burial within the precincts, in 1960.

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