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‘God’s Own People’ – Welsh Puritans, The New Model Army & The Commonwealth.   Leave a comment

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‘Williams alias Cromwell’ – God’s Welshman?:

Christopher Hill

Writing recently on the 375th anniversary of the founding of the New Model Army, I was reminded of the fact that its cavalry commander, Oliver Cromwell, given the epithet ‘God’s Englishman’ as the title of his biography, by Christopher Hill (right), was of ‘good Welsh stock’. Indeed, his ancestors’ story is very much synonymous with the union of England and Wales under the Tudors. Oliver himself was born in 1599, one of ten children, in Huntingdon, towards the end of the reign of the last Welsh-speaking monarch of Britain, Elizabeth I.

Oliver Cromwell’s father, Robert Cromwell (alias Williams), was the younger son of Sir Henry Cromwell (alias Williams), the ‘Golden Knight of Hinchingbrooke’. Henry’s father was born Richard Williams, grandson of a Welshman said to have accompanied Henry Tudor when he seized the throne of England from the Plantagenets at the Battle of Bosworth and became Henry VII in 1485. So the family’s estate derived from Oliver’s great-great-grandfather Morgan ap William, the son of William ap Ieuan of Wales. William was a great archer and a kinsman of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke. Morgan was a brewer from Glamorgan who settled at Putney near London and married Katherine Cromwell (born 1482), the daughter of the local blacksmith, Walter Cromwell. She was also the sister of Thomas Cromwell, the famous chief minister to Henry VIII. The Cromwell family acquired great wealth as occasional beneficiaries of Thomas’s administration of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Of course, he was known as the ‘hammer of the monks’ and was the architect of the English Reformation. The story of his fall and execution in 1540 has just been re-chronicled by historical novelist Hilary Mantel in the final part of her hugely popular ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy, something else that prompted me to write about Oliver Cromwell’s Welsh connections.

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Henry VIII believed that the Welsh should adopt surnames in the English style rather than taking their fathers’ names (patronyms) as Morgan ap William and his male ancestors had done. Henry suggested to Sir Richard Williams, one of the king’s most favoured knights, who was the first to use a surname in his family, that he might adopt the surname of his uncle Thomas Cromwell. For several generations, the Williamses added the surname of Cromwell to their own, styling themselves “Williams alias Cromwell” in legal documents (Noble 1784, pp. 11–13). Richard Williams took the name of his famous uncle and acted as his agent in the suppression of the monasteries. He had his reward: three abbeys, two priories and the nunnery of Hinchinbrooke, worth perhaps two-and-a-half thousand pounds a year, came into his possession; and he married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London. His son, Sir Henry, built the magnificent mansion out of the ruins of Hinchinbrooke, fit to entertain royalty, on the site of Ramsey Abbey. In the year of the Armada, 1588, he ordered all his copyhold tenants in the manor of Ramsey to be ready to attend him at an hour’s notice. He too married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London, represented his county in the House of Commons and was for times sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. He was one of the two wealthiest landowners in Huntingdonshire.

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An integrated Britain becomes visible first in the major migration of the Welsh to the centre of power in the sixteenth century. Dafydd Seisyllt from the Welsh-speaking ‘enclave’ of Ergyng in Herefordshire went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman and spy-master. William’s son, Robert Cecil, became chief minister of James I, and in 1605 ‘uncovered’ the Gunpowder Plot. As we have seen above, the family of Morgan ap-William, the brewer who married Thomas Cromwell’s sister, changed its name and its base from Glamorganshire to Huntingdonshire during this time, producing Oliver Cromwell three generations later. A horde of less well-known Welsh people colonised some of the London professional classes, the armed forces and some branches of commerce which in a few sectors became historically significant. The law and education are major examples of this. They also helped to establish Bristol as Britain’s major Atlantic port as trade routes switched from the eastern English coasts to the west. The Welsh moved resolutely into every conceivable avenue of advancement, from the Court, the Great Sessions, the Council of Wales, JP patronage and the academic world, through minerals, commerce and politics, to smuggling and piracy.

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Under Elizabeth I, Welsh intellectuals concentrated in force behind the first thrust for naval growth, American colonisation and empire. For the first time in centuries, the Welsh Church ceased to serve as the provider of sinecures for English clerics; thirteen of the sixteen bishops appointed to Wales were crusading Protestant Welshmen. Elizabeth’s coronation oath referred back through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories of the Kings of Britain to claim her right to call herself Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church independently of the ‘Bishop of Rome’, tracing the origins of the churches in Britain to the Celtic missionaries. When these claims came under attack from the ‘Italian School’, most Tudor Renaissance humanists came to the defence of what had become official ‘doctrine’.

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Among the new scholars were Sir John Price of Brecon and Humphrey Llwyd of Denbigh. In 1571, Jesus College, Oxford was created specifically as a Welsh college. Central to this burst of British imperial energy was the seminal figure of the European Renaissance, Dr John Dee, the London-Welshman, originally from Radnorshire, who is credited with the coinage of the term ‘British Empire’. He was a brilliant mathematician and foundation fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. In the 1580s, from the twin Calvinist bases of Bohemia and the Palatinate, he launched a scientific and mystical movement which cultivated a new world view. In 1614, Elizabeth Stuart, James I’s daughter, married Frederick, Elector Palatine, and in 1618 they became the ‘Winter’ King and Queen of Bohemia, an event which led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe.

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Court & Country in Stuart Times:

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Henry’s son, Sir Oliver, also a knight of the shire and high sheriff, was the uncle of Oliver Cromwell. Despite prudent marriages, Sir Oliver, living to almost a hundred, managed to dissipate the family fortunes. He entertained James I at Hinchinbrooke (above) in the most lavish way when the King was on progress from Scotland in 1603 and on many later occasions. Like other country gentlemen who entertained the impecunious monarch, Sir Oliver got little in return. Like Sir John Harington of Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, tutor and guardian of James’ daughter Elizabeth, Sir Oliver is a classical example of a man ruined by ‘courtesy’. He had to sell his great house to the Montague family, who were to play a major part in the civil wars.

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This may have been the root cause of the family feud which was the background to Oliver’s own quarrel with Sir Edward Montague, the Earl of Manchester, pictured right, which led to the ‘Self-Denying Ordinance’ removing Manchester and his fellow peers from command of the Parliamentary Army, and the establishment of the ‘New Model’ Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell. The immediate result of the sale was that Robert, as the younger son, inherited little of the patrimony; but he did retain some of his own former church property. Cromwell’s father Robert was of modest means but still, a member of the landed gentry.

As a younger son with many siblings, Robert inherited only a house at Huntingdon and a small amount of land. This land would have generated an income of up to £300 a year, near the bottom of the range of gentry incomes. Oliver’s mother was Elizabeth Steward, the anglicised surname of ‘Stewart’ or ‘Stuart’. On both sides, the fortunes of the family had been founded by the ‘spoliation’ of the Roman Catholic Church. At the Reformation Elizabeth Steward’s great-uncle, Robert had been the last Prior of Ely and its first protestant Dean. Her father William and after him her only brother Sir Thomas farmed the lands of Ely Cathedral. The connection between the two families went back two generations: for the man who persuaded Prior Robert Steward to throw in his lot with Thomas Cromwell was Sir Richard Cromwell, previously known as Richard Williams.

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Above. Ely Cathedral from Cromwell’s House.

Oliver was born in a house which had been part of the hospital of St John in Huntingdon since his father had acquired property which had formerly belonged to the Austin friars: from his maternal uncle Sir Thomas Steward, Oliver was later to inherit extensive leases from the Dean and Chapter of Ely. But he must have grown up conscious of the fact that he was a poor relation. He visited the splendours of Hinchinbrooke from time to time, but his father’s three hundred pounds a year was less than Sir Oliver would have spent on a fleeting visit from King James. Young Oliver had many rich and important relations, but his own upbringing was modest. Cromwell himself in 1654 said,

“I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in considerable height, nor yet in obscurity”.

Above: Cromwell’s House and parish church, Ely

Along with his brother Henry, Oliver had kept a smallholding of chickens and sheep, selling eggs and wool to support himself, his lifestyle resembling that of a yeoman farmer. In 1636 Cromwell inherited control of various properties in Ely from his uncle on his mother’s side, and his uncle’s job as tithe collector for Ely Cathedral. As a result, his income is likely to have risen to around £300–400 per year.

Cromwell’s House in Ely is a museum today, as shown above, and below.

 

By the end of the 1630s, Cromwell had returned to the ranks of acknowledged gentry. He had become a committed Puritan and had established important family links to leading families in London and Essex. In his seminal book The World Turned Upside Down (below), Christopher Hill argued that the familiar civil war division between the ‘Royalist’ North and West and the ‘Parliamentarian’ South and East, was also a division between the ‘relatively backward’ North and West, and the ‘economically advanced South and East’. Yet, with hindsight, these contemporary stereotypes were already changing as the first civil war got underway and by the second the growth in Atlantic trade was already beginning to transform the fortunes of war in the West. Yet, the North and West were regarded by Parliamentarians as the ‘dark corners of the land’, in which preaching was totally inadequate, despite the early attempts made by many Puritans to propagate the Gospel. In 1641, Lord Brooke (Earl of Warwick) observed that there was…

… scarce any minister in some whole shires, as in Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland and especially in Wales.

Eighteen years later, the evangelical minister and Parliamentary chaplain, Richard Baxter, argued that…

 … multitudes in England, and more in Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, the Highlands, are scarce able to talk reason about common things. Are these … fit to have the sovereign power, to rule the Commonwealth?

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But the radicals puritans’ vision already included a reformed educational system, which would realise something of Comenius’ ideal: universal education in the vernacular for boys and girls up to the age of eighteen, followed by six years at university for the best pupils. On a visit to England in 1641, he wrote that…

… they are eagerly debating on the reformation in the whole kingdom … that all young people should be instructed, none neglected.

Wales in the Civil Wars – Royalists to Roundheads:

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In the first civil war, Wales was seen as solidly in support of the King, but by 1645 the royalist coalition in Wales, bludgeoned by repeated levies of men and money, murky deals with the Irish and an inflow of royalist refugees, began to break up. In Glamorgan, ‘peaceable armies’ demonstrated for compromise and throughout Wales, there was wholesale defection. By 1646 the ‘Pembroke party’ was also working for a compromise peace with the Presbyterians in the face of a radical army. From that army came Independent chaplains such as Vavasour Powell, who became itinerant preachers among the Welsh. In response, moderate royalists, Presbyterians and disgruntled parliamentarians shuffled into an alliance in support of the imprisoned king. This led to a rising focused on south Pembrokeshire in the summer of 1648 when there were also revolts in south-east England, followed by an invasion of Northern England by the Scots. The rising in South Wales was led by former Parliamentarian officers, renegades against whom Cromwell was particularly bitter. After their defeat, one of their leaders was shot. In this second civil war, the New Model Army won a victory against the rebels at St Fagans near Cardiff and Cromwell himself brought about the final reduction of Pembroke Castle, the boyhood home of Henry Tudor. Early in 1649, Charles was executed and Wales was exposed to the full force of ‘the British Republic’.

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But the ‘transformation’ of Wales from a Royalist ‘fiefdom’ into a Roundhead republic by no means simply an orgy of expulsions and confiscations. Many of the men who gained control in Wales were ‘crusaders’ for the puritan cause. John Jones, a freeholder from of Maes-y-Garnedd in Merioneth and a convert of Morgan Llwyd’s preaching, married Cromwell’s sister, served the Protector in Ireland and died heroically on the scaffold as an unrepentant regicide. Colonel Philip Jones of Llangyfelach, a distinguished soldier, was close to the visionary Hugh Peter, and it was this circle that the notion evolved of evangelising Wales around a ‘commission’ to propagate the gospel. To them, Wales was a dark corner, ripe for a radical experiment in godly government. It was this abused régime with its army men and preaching cobblers which proved to be the only English administration to date to treat Wales as a separate nation. The Rump Parliament at Westminster had disappointed even moderate reformers by its failure to ensure that the word was preached in every parish, for there were still too many lazy, ignorant and absentee parsons who left their flocks hungry in what was a sermon-hungry age. It did set up two local Commissions for the Propagation of the Gospel early in 1650, one for Wales and the other for the northern counties, but it made no progress at all with a bill intended to do the same for England as a whole.

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The Act for the Better Propagation of the Gospel in Wales of 1650 gave the country a peculiar form of autonomy under Colonel Thomas Harrison and seventy commissioners. There were a few members of the gentry of Independent temper like Sir Erasmus Philipps of Picton in Pembrokeshire, though most, of necessity, were English military missionaries. Philip Jones and John Jones were prominent, but the core around Harrison were men like Powell, Cradock, Llwyd, John Miles (who had created the first Calvinistic Baptist church in Gower), men whom later generations would see as founding fathers of modern Wales. They threw out nearly three hundred clergymen, but the propagating venture got a bad name when the Welsh commission was powerfully infiltrated by Fifth Monarchist firebrands, most notably Vavasour Powell and Morgan Llwyd, who had strong links with Colonel Harrison and his faction in the Army. They were not only seen as perverting the organisation in order to preach socially subversive ideas about the irrelevance of worldly rank and the imminent rule of the saints, but they were unjustly accused of misappropriating the tithes and other revenues of the church in Wales to their own sectarian ends. This was only one symptom of growing polarization between moderate and extreme puritans. The year 1652 saw a spate of radical pamphlets and petitions, tending to the removal of religion from the state’s authority, as well as the rapid expansion of Quakers and other heterodox sects. But it also saw the emergence of a group of moderate Independents led by John Owen who put a set of proposals before the Rump prefiguring the ecclesiastical régime of the Protectorate. They sought to preserve a broad established church, with generous freedom of worship and association outside it.

As a political and religious ‘Independent’, Lord General Cromwell favoured the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in both England and Wales, though he maintained the need for a national Church, supported through tithes, possibly because he himself was a tithe-collector for Ely. Yet Parliament did nothing to achieve this. It was not until February 1653 that the Rump took up the relatively conservative but nonetheless reforming scheme of Owen and his group. But Parliament and the Army remained suspicious of each other, and the Rump showed particular animosity towards Harrison, whom the hostile MPs blamed for the radical actions taken under the auspices of the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales. He had lost his place on the Council of State in November 1651, and there was even a move to expel him from parliament. This was not only unjust but also foolish, for though Cromwell did not share Harrison’s fifth monarchist beliefs, there were still strong ties of friendship and mutual trust between the two seasoned soldiers. According to contemporary sources, Cromwell played up to Army radicalism by saying that the Rump intended to support ‘the corrupt interests of the clergy and the lawyers’. So far from reforming the Anglican Church, Parliament aroused resentment by refusing to renew the Commission for Wales, the Army’s favourite instrument for evangelising what had proved to be a politically unreliable country.

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Cromwell and the generals also advocated the disappearance of Parliament and the handing of power to a provisional government, in which they themselves would naturally predominate, to supervise and control elections. How otherwise, he asked, could one know …

… whether the next Parliament were not like to consist of all Presbyterians. … Thus, as we apprehended, would have been thrown away the liberties of the nation into the hands of those who had never fought for it.

When a meeting between officers and MPs on 19 April 1653 ended in deadlock, the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between them to engage in further discussions was breached the next day by backbench MPs who started to rush through a bill for dissolution without meeting the officers’ demand for an interim authority under their control, revealing that parliament intended to control the election of its successors itself. Cromwell felt that his hand had been forced, and intervened with the army just in time to stop the new bill from becoming law. He flew into a rage, by all accounts, declaring to the Commons:

You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament …

So ended the Long Parliament, which had sat for twelve and a half years. Despite the repeated attempts by many to ‘paint’ this as an act of tyranny in the form orchestrated ‘coup d’état’, it is quite clear that what Cromwell was seeking to do was to end the dictatorship of an undemocratic ‘élite’ which was clinging to power and trying to ensure the continued predominance of presbyterian rule both in Westminster and the country at large. His ‘righteous indignation’ stemmed from the manner in which they sought to dissolve themselves in order to ensure that they could rig the subsequent election to this effect. Their betrayal of the compromise reached with the Army took him by surprise.

The ‘Coral Growth’ of the Welsh Independents:

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Above: The British Republic, 1649-60.

During the civil wars, new universities were proposed for Bristol, Shrewsbury, Ludlow and Aberystwyth. There were also proposals for an increase in the number of schools and in Wales a great number of new schools were actually started. Despite the negative stereotypes quoted above, according to Laurence Stone, there was a substantial increase in lower-class literacy throughout the revolutionary decades. One of the paradoxes of the period was that of the most radical sectarian groups, the Quakers started almost exclusively in the North of England and the Baptists were at their strongest in Wales. William Erbery claimed that the new English Independency had already been overthrown by the Welsh and that…

… baptised churches have the greatest fall (harvest) from the northern saints in both in England and Wales … John’s spirit is in the North of England and the spirit of Jesus rising in North Wales is for the fall of all the churches in the South. The whirlwind comes from the North. 

From the early 1650s, there was a rapid expansion of Particular Baptists in Wales and of Quakers all over the North of England. In 1654, one of their enemies, Ephraim Pagitt, said of them in 1654 that they were made up out of the dregs of common people … thickest set in the North Parts. Earlier, in 1649, Hugh Peter and others had noticed that the Welsh border counties, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, were ‘ripe for the gospel’ and emissaries were sent from Glamorgan to London asking for preachers. When the Quakers turned south in 1654 they made great progress among ‘that dark people’ of Cornwall, as well as in Wales, and among weavers generally, notably in Gloucestershire. The paradox was further intensified by the fact that such Puritan ministers as there were in the North had mostly been cleared out in the Laudian persecutions of the 1630s, under Richard Neile, Archbishop of York. Those remaining were further reduced in the North and Wales when they fled from their parishes the civil war to escape the Royalist occupation in those territories. As early as 1646 Thomas Edwards had noted that…

… emissaries out of the sectaries’ churches are sent to infect and poison … Yorkshire and those northern parts, … Bristol and Wales. … Sects begin to grow fast … for want of a settlement in discipline.

Traditional southern middle-class Puritanism of the Presbyterian variety had a hold only in isolated areas of the North, and hardly at all in Wales, except for the area of Harley influence along the borders with Worcestershire and Herefordshire. There, Sir Thomas’ planting of godly ministers … backing them with his authority made religion famous in his little corner of the world. Clarendon testifies to the existence of support for the Parliamentary cause among the common people and popular religious movements in North Wales and in the Forest of Dean at the end of the first civil war. This helps to explain why the New Model Army, …

… having marched up and down the kingdom, to do the work of God and the state … met with many Christians who have much gospel-light … in such places where there hath been no gospel-ministry.

Presbyterian Puritanism took little hold of any depth in Wales. The defeat of the Royalist armies and the bankruptcy of the traditional clergy created an even greater spiritual void than in the more traditional Puritan areas of the South and East. Yet the period was one of much greater prosperity in the pasture farming areas of Wales and the borders. This combined with a growth in ‘cottage’ industries as confirmed by a shift in population to the west midland counties of England and the re-building of peasant houses in stone. Contemporaries explained the ‘whoredoms of the Welsh’ by the mountain air: the modern historian more wisely sees them as the natural product of a society which refused to accept English protestant marriage laws.

In these areas, it was the Particular Baptists who initially filled the spiritual gap, though in some parts they were superseded by Quakers, as in the North of England. The more politically radical Fifth Monarchists had only a superficial influence in Wales, being a mainly urban movement, and they had little connection with the Forest of Dean before the 1670s. It seems to have been mainly in response to this radical challenge that the outlying clergy joined in the movement led by Kidderminster’s Richard Baxter to build up voluntary county associations of ministers, a sort of ‘Presbyterianism from below’. The radical Independents of the Cromwellian period in Wales and along the Welsh border included Vavasour Powell, Morgan Lloyd, Walter Cradock and William Erbery, to which might be added Thomas Harrison and Henry Danvers, the Fifth Monarchists from Staffordshire, and the Leveller William Walwyn of Worcestershire.

There was also a broader cultural impact of Wales and the borders upon the ‘more advanced’ south and east. John Donne, the greatest of the metaphysical poets, is separated by just one generation from the Welsh forbear who sent his younger son to London to be apprenticed, and George Herbert and Henry Vaughan were both Welsh. Thomas Traherne came from the Welsh ‘marches’ and in the second rank of border ‘bards’, we might include Lord Herbert of Cherbury and John Davies of Hereford. Inigo Jones, the great architect who re-built St Paul’s before the Great Fire destroyed it completely, was of Welsh descent. Turning to the field of mathematics and science, Robert Recorde, John Dee, Robert Fludd, Matthew Gwynne, Edmund Gunter, Thomas Vaughan and Edward Somerset, Marquis of Worcester, were all Welsh or, like Cromwell himself, of Welsh descent. The cultural consequences of the union of Great Britain, begun by the Tudors, and extended by James I, were further developed through the creation of the New Model Army and its role in the political and religious matters of the mid-seventeenth century.

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The Cromwell Coat of Arms (on Oliver’s ascent to Lord Protector in 1653)

The Bible & Radical Puritanism in the Protectorate:

Late twentieth-century historians re-examined the nature of Cromwell’s faith and of his authoritarian regime. In his extensive 2002 book (see below), Austin Woolrych explored the issue of “dictatorship” in depth, arguing that Cromwell was subject to two conflicting forces: his obligation to the army and his desire to achieve a lasting settlement by winning back the confidence of the nation as a whole. He argued that the dictatorial elements of Cromwell’s rule stemmed less from its military origin or the participation of army officers in civil government than from his constant commitment to the interest of the people of God and his conviction that suppressing vice and encouraging virtue constituted the chief end of government. Historians such as John Morrill, Blair Worden, and J. C. Davis have developed this theme, revealing the extent to which Cromwell’s writing and speeches are suffused with biblical references, and arguing that his radical actions were driven by his zeal for godly reformation.

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It is difficult to overemphasise the role of the Bible in the radical Puritanism of the first half of the seventeenth century. By mid-century, eschatological prophecy had become a major part of protestant controversial literature, aided especially by the invention of printing. Scholars, including Newton, approached the Bible authorised by King James in 1612 in a scientific spirit and reached a consensus which indicated the advent of remarkable events in the mid-1650s: the fall of Antichrist, the second coming and the millennium. This underlay the confident energy and utopian enthusiasm of the Puritan preachers of the 1640s and ’50s. In this spirit of optimism, they called upon their fellow commoners to fight the Lord’s battles against the Antichrist. Cromwell was chief among these men to take up that calling.

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Ordinary Bible-readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wanted to democratise the mysteries that lay behind the sacred texts of the Scriptures, previously known only to scholars, for themselves. They believed, on good protestant authority, that anyone could understand God’s word if he studied it carefully enough and if the grace of God was in him. Then the Bible could be made to reveal the significance of the events of his own time. Bibles were no longer expensive as book prices then went, 3s 2d in 1649 and later just two shillings. Soldiers in the New Model Army were issued with The Soldier’s Bible, containing key passages which justified their war with the ‘Antichrist’. The Geneva Bible, on which the Authorised Version was based, was published in pocket-size editions so that men could take it to church or the ale-house, as Henry VIII had observed with alarm, to knock down an argument with a text. Those coming to the Bible with no broad historical sense but with high expectations found in it a message of direct contemporary relevance. A young Welshman delighting in the name of ‘Arise’ Evans (a forename probably derived from ‘Rhys’, ‘ap-Rhys’ or, in its anglicised form, ‘Rice’) who arrived in London in 1629, witnessed as to how his attitude to the Bible changed in the decade before the Revolution:

Afore I looked upon the Scripture as a history of things that passed in other countrie, pertaining to other persons; but now I looked upon it as a mystery to be opened at this time, belonging also to us.

This attitude was, no doubt, shared by many of the victims of economic and political crisis who turned to the Bible for guidance in that perplexing period. The 1640s and ’50s were indeed the great age of ‘mechanic preachers’, laymen like the Quakers George Fox and James Nayler, who led a procession into Bristol in 1656 symbolically riding on an ass, and the ex-soldier and Baptist John Bunyan, interpreting the Bible according to their own untutored ‘inner lights’ with all the excitement and assurance of a new discovery. Many Quaker leaders were also ex-soldiers, like James Nayler, and some had been dismissed from the Army in the 1650s for disciplinary reasons, but others seem not to have found military service compatible with their values. Quakers also continued to serve in the Navy. George Fox was offered a commission in 1651. In his Journal he recorded that he refused it on pacifist grounds, but in 1657 he urged ‘the inferior offices and soldiers’ of the Army on to conquer Rome. After 1658 he was more cautious, but as late as 1660 a leading south Welsh Quaker asked Fox whether Quakers were free to serve in the Army. The first official declaration of absolute pacifism was made by the Society of Friends in January 1661, after a number of Quakers had been arrested in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Fifth Monarchist Revolt. It was intended to protect them against charges of sedition, but also marks the beginning of refusal among them to accept civil or military offices. However, it is more likely that, in the previous decade, the early refusals of Fox and others sprang from political objections to the government of the Commonwealth rather than from pacifist principles. In fact, in 1659, when the political situation was more to their liking, many Quakers re-enlisted in the Army. As late as 1685, Quakers are said to have turned out with their ‘pitchforks’ in the west country to join Monmouth’s rebellion.

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The Growth of Quakerism in Wales & the West of England – The Strange Case of Dorcas Erbery:

The coral growth of Quakerism, especially in Wales and the Western Counties of England, from Cumberland to Cornwall, was largely the product of the nurturing of lay-preaching in the radical regiments of the New Model Army. These soldier-preachers, like Nayler, took it for granted that fellow Quakers had supported and, in most cases, fought for Parliament in the civil wars. George Fox made similar assumptions, though by the mid-1650s he was resisting James Nayler’s ‘simple teaching’ and writing to Nayler that his style of mechanic preaching had made him a shelter for the unclean spirits, the beasts of the field; they made thee their refuge. The controversy led to disunity, as elsewhere, while Nayler himself remained silent. Nayler was born in the Yorkshire village of West Ardsley, near Wakefield in 1618, where he followed his father’s occupation of a ‘husbandman’ before moving into the nearby town. In 1643 he had joined the Parliamentary Army and served seven years in a foot regiment before becoming quartermaster in Lambert’s Regiment of Horse, taking part in the third civil war, including the battles of Dunbar and Worcester.

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In the summer of 1656, along with a number of other Quakers, Nayler was imprisoned in Exeter Jail. Amongst these were a number of women, including Dorcas Erbery, the daughter of an “honest minister” in Wales, probably William Erbery. One of the women died, and when Dorcas, some days later, fell into a prolonged faint, the excited women about her declared that she was also dead. Nayler was called to see the lifeless body and laid his hands upon it, and at his touch, the girl revived and stood up. That was sufficient to prove to his followers that he was Christ, though he himself never claimed this, contrary to the charges made against him later that year. When the Bristol magistrates quoted from the letters found in his pockets, one of which referred to him, from John’s Gospel, as the Lamb of God, in whom the hope of Israel stands, and asked him whether he was himself that Lamb, he responded:

If I were not his Lamb, I should not be thus sought for to be devoured. The hope of Israel stands in the righteousness of the Father in whomsoever it is.

Such a reply scarcely seemed to merit imprisonment, and it may be that if Nayler’s followers had not shown such an uncompromising spirit in their hero-worship he would have been allowed to go free. Martha Simmonds and Dorcas Erbery both stoutly maintained that he was indeed Jesus. No cross-examination could shake Dorcas from her belief that Nayler had raised her to life after she had been dead two days. Under these circumstances, a seventeenth-century Bench had no alternative but to send them back to jail. The two male Quakers who had played a modest part in the demonstration in the courthouse, which had included continual shouting of ‘hosanna’, were sent home without charge and attended the Friends’ meeting later that day. Nayler and his companions were not completely disowned by the Bristol Quakers, and a local Quaker apothecary brought them supplies and “comforts” before Nayler was sent to Westminster to answer the charge of ‘blasphemy’ before Parliament. But a note from Thomas Simmonds, the printer, to his wife Martha, one of the women involved, concludes with an affectionate but somewhat bantering strain:

Dear heart, my love is to thee and to J.N. and to J.S. and H.S. But this I could not but write to warn you that you stand single to the Lord and not believe every sprit. Your work is soon to come to an end: part of the army that fell at Burford was your figure.

The reference to Burford is to Cromwell’s suppression of the Leveller mutiny in the Army of 1649 when the mutineers were locked in Burford Church and a number of them were shot. This ‘turning point’ in the Revolution was clearly still fresh in many minds, and the reference to it may also point to the quarrel between Nayler and Fox, whose ‘authority’ over the movement he continued to dispute. When one of Fox’s letters to him was used in evidence against Nayler in court, the latter had called his erstwhile leader a liar and firebrand of hell, which must have alarmed the local Quakers who were present and given them a measure of his alienation from Fox’s leadership. Nayler’s ‘excitable women followers’ were also bitterly critical of Fox, but Nayler had refused to restrain them at Fox’s request, made in a letter of September 1656, possibly the letter produced in court. Nayler later justified his refusal by saying that he did not wish to quench whatever was ‘of God’ in what they said and did. The modern-day Quaker writer, John Lampen, has stated (1981) that:

It has been generally assumed that at the time he did not have the emotional strength to withstand their influence, and this is borne out by contemporary descriptions of his passive, exhausted demeanor. However he was still justifying his behaviour by appealing to divine guidance, and so implicitly challenging Fox’s spiritual insight.

Other friends expected Fox to settle the issue by his personal authority. In the unity so often felt at the start of a great venture, they had not yet needed to discover ways of reconciling different perceptions of the Truth, and Nayler was considered by many contemporaries to be their most notable preacher, even if Fox was the chief pastor of their flock. The over-enthusiastic atmosphere which developed around Nayler was created by men as well as women. When one man wrote to him, Thy name shall be no more James Nayler, but Jesus, he put it straight in his pocket, overcome by fear, intending no-one to see it, as he could not own its contents, but he did not, as far as we know, reprove the sender. Fox was not without fault in their quarrel. When the two men eventually met, Nayler went to kiss Fox on the head, but Fox recoiled, instead offering him his foot to kiss. However, Fox refused to publish a statement condemning Nayler, but he did repudiate some of his ‘followers’ including Martha Simmonds, for their lies and slanders. Beneath the inter-personal conflict lay a fundamental issue as to whether the ‘Guidance within’ which was claimed by individual Quakers could be viewed as an infallible spirit. Fox could see in Nayler the possibility of unchecked individualism diverging from the divine illumination in which he believed. Following Nayler’s release from prison, the two were finally reconciled in 1659 shortly before his death. Early Friends believed that one of the ‘offices’ of Christ was judgment and Fox could assert that he did not judge Nayler himself but ‘set the Power of God over him’, while Nayler could claim that he felt this ‘inward judgment’ while in prison and it saved him.

In this context, it is quite clear that whatever interpretation Nayler’s followers might have placed upon their actions, he regarded himself simply as a symbol of the Christ whom they all worshipped, and that the ‘triumphal’ entry into the city on 24 October 1656 was simply a sign of his second coming. Viewed in this light, the episode falls into line with the frequent going naked for a sign and the other revivals of symbolism from the Bible practised by primitive Quakers, Baptists and other sects. The rift between the supporters of George Fox and those of James Nayler that had extended throughout the movement, and far into Wales, was eventually healed, and it showed that it was not as vulnerable as its enemies had hoped. But treachery lurked in the ‘inner light’. In a time of defeat, when the wave of revolution was ebbing, the inner voice became quietest and pacifist. This voice only was recognised by others as God’s. God was no longer served by the extravagant gesture, whether Nayler’s entry into Bristol or the blasphemy of the Ranters. Once the group decided this way, all the pressures were in the direction of accepting modes of expression not too shocking to the society in which men had to live and earn their living. In 1656, John Lewis urged the religious radicals in Wales not to go too fast or too far in inveighing against old customs and against the superstitious Welsh regard for church buildings.

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When Nayler was pilloried for his ‘blasphemy’ in London at Christmas (pictured above), the three women prisoners, including Dorcas Erbery, were also present, and in what was (no doubt) intended as another ‘acted parable’, took their seat at the foot of the pillory in imitation of the women at the crucifixion of Christ. Dorcas and the others who had been imprisoned with Nayler in Exeter and Bristol remained in prison until the following May. In February, they attended a service at Westminster Abbey, which was presumably part of their punishment. The following is from a contemporary account in Mercurius Politicus:

This day being the Lord’s day, the persons called Quakers who were brought from Bristol with James Nayler, remaining yet undischarged under the custody of the Sergeant at Arms, but now somewhat altered in their carriage, went to the Abbey morning and afternoon, where they gave ear civilly and attentively to the sermons of Mr. John Rowe, an eminent preacher; whose spritual doctrine so far wrought upon them that they intend to hear him again – which gives hopes that they may be rectified in their judgment.

However, it does not appear that Dorcas Erbery’s judgment was so completely rectified as was supposed, for in two years from this date she was again in prison in Bristol, …

… with many others … for preaching and declaring the truth to the people in the public places of resort and Concourse, a Duty which they esteemed themselves under an indispensable necessity of performing.

The Welsh Prophet, ‘Arise’ Evans:

‘Arise’ (Rhys) Evans spoke of his own humble origins with reference to the apostles:

I am as the Paul of this time. … he was a mechanic, a tent maker. Acts 18:3. I am a tailor.

Evans was born about 1607 in Llangelynnin parish  (near Barmouth) and was apprenticed to a tailor at Wrexham. While living in Wales he had seen visions and prophetic dreams which were accentuated when he went to London in 1629. In London, he made vain efforts to warn Charles I of perceived dangers but succeeded in telling the Earl of Essex to his face of his future promotions. Evans also seems to have suffered from mental illness. He hung around Charles I’s court for days on end, in order to deliver his message from God to the King announcing that he and his kingdom were to be destroyed. Meanwhile, bishops ran away at the sight of him, and the royal Secretary of State asked for the prayers of ‘God’s secretary’. In the 1640s, Evans got a brief spell in the Bridewell for telling the City’s Deputy Recorder that he, Arise Evans, was the Lord his God. Later, he called upon Oliver Cromwell and stayed to midnight: he pestered the Council of State to restore the son of the King whom they had executed, and republican officers defended him in long arguments at Whitehall.

But the Commonwealth did not even imprison him as Charles and the Deputy Recorder had done. As long as the ‘imbecile’ had no disciples, he or she was allowed a great deal of latitude. Prophets were often tolerated because they could be used to further the political purposes of powerful men, as Arise Evans may have been. In 1653, indeed, he gave a forecast of the course of events in England following Cromwell’s death that came remarkably near the truth. His Narrations, Voices from Heaven, and Echoes of those Voices contain weird and impossible extravagances, but there are passing references of great interest, notably to John Jones (1597 – 1660) the regicide’s acquaintance with the lake of Tal-y-Llyn, to Christopher Love speaking to him in Welsh, to the Welsh connections of Oliver Cromwell. In the freer circumstances of the 1640s and ’50s, most so-called ‘mad’ people appear to have been political radicals. A mental breakdown could be seen as a form of social protest or at least a reaction to intolerable social conditions: those who break down, like Arise Evans, may, in reality, be truly sane. This is certainly an explanation to bear in mind when considering those radicals often dismissed as ‘the lunatic fringe’.

As William Dell of ‘the Apostles’ claimed, Poor, illiterate, mechanic men, turned the world upside down. The effort to grasp new truths, truths which would turn the world upside down, may have been too much for men like Arise Evans. The Bible was the accepted source of all true knowledge. Men as different as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and Gerard Winstanley, the ‘Digger’ from Wigan, both illustrated from the Bible conclusions at which they had arrived by rational means. Simpler men like Arise Evans believed the Bible to be divinely inspired and applied its texts directly to problems of their own world and time, with no idea of the difficulties of translation, nor of the historical understanding required to do so. So Evans thought that Revelation 8 and 11 gave an account of the civil war, that chapters 8 and 9 of Amos set down all that came to pass since the beginning of the Long Parliament, and that in Amos 9:1, the lintel of the door, which is to be smitten that the posts may shake, must refer to Speaker Lenthall. As Christopher Hill pointed out, unlike the Puritan divines who had cited the Bible against bishops and tithes, …

The Evanses studied it very carefully, if less skilfully, in order to understand and so be able to control what was going to happen.

Evans became interested in the multifarious sects that flourished under the relatively liberty of the late 1640s, opposing most of them, especially the tenets of the Fifth Monarchists. In 1649, he had a vision in which he went through France to Rome, where a voice came to me saying, “So far as thou art come, so far shall Cromwell come”. But Evans made a distinction between the ‘history’ and the ‘mystery’ of the Bible, as did William Erbery, who in his Testimony recalled that a chief one of the Army would … usually say that the flesh of Christ and the letter of scripture were the two great idols of Antichrist.

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Propagating the Gospel & Protecting the State – Vavasour Powell & Oliver Cromwell:

According to Welsh historian, A. H. Dodd (1957), the Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel became ‘the real government of Wales’. Those who administered Wales could not afford to alienate Baptist or Quaker missionaries, many of whom were ex-New Model Army soldiers and chaplains, who still, in the years 1651-53, continued to support the Parliamentary cause. J.P.s protected the preachers as a lesser evil than papists or pagans. The Committee’s ‘Approvers’, dominated by republican intransigents, created the first state schools, fifty-nine of them, open to both sexes and offering Latin and Greek, but trying to preach regeneration to the Welsh in English, although most sermons had been delivered in Welsh since the publication of Bishop Morgan’s Welsh Bible in 1588, which may help to explain why many Independent English preachers failed to ‘connect’ with their Welsh congregations. They had even more trouble finding replacements for the ministers. In came the itinerants and in came men from the hitherto invisible classes, to battle forward, often in the gales of hostility. Vavasour Powell, travelled a hundred miles a week, preaching in two or three places a day. He was probably the outstanding Welshman of his time, a brilliant and fearless man not afraid to address A Word for God … against Wickedness in High Places to Cromwell himself. Converts sprouted wherever he spoke, especially in the uplands of the south and the border. In north Wales, Morgan Llwyd, a writer of powerful Welsh classics and a man of mystical temper, sent John ap John of Ruabon to contact George Fox to gain his help in starting an often anarchic movement of Welsh Quakers, which may be from where Dorcas Erbery, Nayler’s ‘prophetess’ sprang. George Fox, on his own mission, found God raising up a people around Cader Idris in mid-Wales in 1657. Cromwell himself said that ‘God had kindled a seed’ in Wales. As Presbyterians penetrated Flintshire, Baptists, Congregationalists and Quakers multiplied along the eastern border and also began to plant in the west.

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As Protector, Cromwell sought to act as the guarantor of an accepted constitution while elected assemblies came and went, to check the evident tendency of an all-powerful single-chamber parliament to veer towards elective dictatorship and to secure for the executive a degree of independence and separation from the legislature. As Protector, he became a strong believer in the separation of powers. But he didn’t find it easy to pursue a moderating course. It brought him into conflict with the influential millenarian preachers in London, including Christopher Feake, Walter Cradock, Vavasour Powell and John Goodwin, who all had a considerable following in the Army. The open hostility of many Rumpers towards army officers did not help the situation. Skippon, clearly a moderate, was dropped from the Council of State at the same time as Harrison, leaving the army almost insultingly under-represented.

The Power & the Glory:

In the Interregnum, the Councils of in the North and in Wales, created by the Tudors, were abolished, the local power of the feudal aristocracy curtailed, and the authority of Whitehall and ‘London’ extended over the whole of the two countries. It seemed obvious to historians like Christopher Hill that the Revolution established a much greater unity among the regions of England, and indeed of the three kingdoms and the principality. But contemporaries worried about centrifugal tendencies. They were no doubt influenced by the examples of the Netherlands, where the republic’s unity derived mainly from the dominance of Holland, while the other provinces clung onto their independence, often with paralysing effects on policy. They were also disturbed by the case of Switzerland, where protestant and Catholic cantons were at war, which Cromwell himself insisted was brought on by external papist intervention. In the early 1650s, England had nearly intervened in the French wars of religion, an intervention which might have created a breakaway republic in the south-west. There were also revolts from Spanish sovereignty of Portugal, Catalonia and Naples, and Cossack risings in Russia and Poland.

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John Lilburne (pictured above) became a Quaker after retiring from the Army in the 1650s. The radical ‘Levellers’ proposed a great deal of decentralisation for England, including local courts at York, and greater county autonomy. William Walwyn, one of their leaders, said that the Swiss cantons were nearest to his ideal. In 1647, Cromwell had argued against such constitutional projects:

Would it not make England like Switzerland, one canton of the Swiss against another, and one county against another? And what would that produce but an absolute desolation in the nation?

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By the time the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales Act lapsed in 1653, the enterprise had spilt out to produce a myriad of sects and creeds, many like the ranters or Anabaptists, often called ‘Quakers’. Such men, rivalling even the most radical Baptists, offered a serious threat to tithes and all established order. They were appearing in many places, from Dolgellau to the Vale of Glamorgan. As Cromwell made himself Lord Protector, the Welsh Republicans moved into opposition. Vavasour Powell tried to organise insurrection in Wales and Ireland. The Blackfriars’ fulminators were also blasting the parliament, the council, the army, and everyone in power in scurrilous terms, and by late November 1653, they too were concentrating their shafts upon Cromwell himself, calling him the man of sin, the old dragon, and many other scripture ill names. Harrison was reportedly railing against him every day and the Anglo-Dutch peace negotiations, and there were allegations that he and his party were planning to take over the command of the army. He was certainly capable of seriously dividing it, and his favourite preachers were, according to Woolrych, …

… aspersing the loyal majority of its officers as janissaries and pensioners of Babylon, corrupted by wealth and power.

Vavasour Powell, in particular, told the generals that:

… that the Spirit of God had departed from them; that heretofore they had been precious and excellent men, but that their parks, and new houses, and gallant wives had choked them up.

At Sunday service on 18 December, he denounced the ‘Lord Protector’ from the pulpit, calling him a perjured villain, leading to his imprisonment, but the Fifth Monarchist’s excesses were losing them such public sympathy as they still commanded, and they ceased to be a serious danger when they lost their seats of power, both at Westminster and in the Army. Harrison was quietly cashiered when he refused to give any assurance that he would support the Protectorate, but only two or three other officers followed him in resigning their commissions. Not so long ago it was customary to account for this by portraying the Protectorate over-simply as a conservative reaction, but this was at best a half-truth. At least in its earlier years, it showed a stronger impulse to reform than the Rump had done. Although Cromwell was at heart a constitutionalist, with a strong respect for parliament as an institution, he still believed that he had a higher duty to promote what he called the interest of the people of God than to bow to the wishes of an unregenerate majority. And while he was conservative to the extent of preserving a national church and respecting the rights of tithe-holders, he upheld broader religious liberty than any elected parliament did in his lifetime. During the early weeks of the Protectorate, the first concern was to secure it against those, mainly the Fifth Monarchists, who were publicly denying its legality, prophesying its early fall and inciting their flocks to disobey it. Feake and Powell were against it again immediately after their early release and were consequently rearrested, though Powell escaped to Wales.

Restoration, Revolution & Toleration:

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As the system started to come apart, there was a revival of the old alliance of royalist moderates and Presbyterians to engineer the restoration of Charles II. Independents and Baptists, far more numerous in Wales than the Presbyterians, caught the first full blast of repression. Nearly a hundred and twenty ministers were thrown out of their livings and subjected to harsh controls. In December 1656, the Fifth Monarchists in south Wales seemed to have followed Morgan Llwyd and Vavasour Powell in renouncing militancy and from current plans for a rising. The Quakers were pursued like mad dogs and Vavasour Powell died in jail. Whole communities braved the horrible Atlantic crossings to create pioneer settlements in ‘the New World’. In the 1670s, as Charles ‘flirted’ with the Dissenters in order to secure toleration for Catholics, moderates in Wales tended to drift back towards the old Parliamentarians and away from the radical puritans. The Welsh Trust, an educational enterprise of Puritan temper which allied moderate Dissenters and Anglicans in 1672 when Charles issued his Indulgence, came to serve as an opposition to the court. When the indulgence ended within a year, to be replaced by the Test Act excluding non-Anglicans from office. At the time of the ‘Popish Plot’ of 1678-79, there was a violent incident in southern Wales when the Catholic seminary Cwm was raided and sacked, priests were thrown into jail and there was heavy confiscation. Four Welsh priests, two of whom were Jesuits, were hanged in savage persecution.

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In 1679, eleven of the twenty-seven Welsh MPs voted for the Exclusion of James II. In these circumstances, many of the old Roundheads came bubbling back to the surface and there was a return of the Quakers and Vavasour Powell’s radicals. In consequence, there was a sharp reaction in the 1680s, a massive renewal of persecution of Dissenters, and major further emigrations to Holland and America. In ‘matters of religion’, therefore, the monopoly of the national church had been broken, and while the House of Commons remained hostile to the idea of religious toleration, nonconformity shook off its revolutionary political associations and, despite continuing persecution, proved that it had come to stay. Those who remained survived through the indulgences offered by Charles II and James II until at the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they won a limited but essential measure of toleration in the Toleration Act of 1689 recognised these facts. Presbyterianism and Congregationalism were not included in the Anglican church, but that church was subjected to Parliament and government. The Puritan Revolution within the state church may have been defeated by 1660, but the Great Britain of the succeeding two centuries was unique among the great powers of Europe for the strength of its evangelical tradition and its toleration of diverse traditions.

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Not until 1685 was some degree of calm restored to Welsh politics with a restoration of Toryism among the gentry classes. It was only after 1688 that governments came to assume that ‘trade must be the principal interest of England’, and that warfare should be confined to supporting this objective through its Navy. Even Charles II in 1680 could not be persuaded of this. By then, Parliament controlled foreign policy, and used the newly mobilised financial resources of the country, through aggressive use of sea power, to protect and expand the trade of a unified empire. The anti-Dutch policy which had continued to be pursued by the pro-Hapsburg Stuart Kings was replaced by the policy of colonial expansion into the western hemisphere, first against Spain and then against the French. It enjoyed more support among the gentry and gradually won over a majority in the House of Commons as Dutch power declined and French power increased.

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England itself had by then had been united under the dominance of the London market; separate courts no longer governed Wales and the North. Therefore, ‘cantonisation’ was no longer a danger. William III’s political and economic subjugation of Ireland was thoroughly Cromwellian and complete: the Union with Scotland in 1707 was on the same lines as that of 1652-60. A union of crowns became a union of peoples, a significant punctuation point in the process which made the new and far more real Great Britain into the greatest merchant empire in the world. England, Wales and Scotland emerged from the seventeenth-century crisis geared to the new world of mercantilism and colonialism. Bristol, pictured above in the early eighteenth century, quickly grew as Britain’s most important port, with its ‘Welsh Backs’ for traders from across the Severn estuary. The Atlantic trade was becoming more important than the trade of the East Anglian ports with the continent and Wales, though still controlled by squires, was becoming an important sector of an Atlantic empire and a British nation.

Sources:

Austin Woolrich (2002), Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Christopher Hill (1970), God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.

Christopher Hill (1984), The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books.

John Lampen (1981), Wait in the Light: The Spirituality of George Fox. London: Quaker Home Service.

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Question Time: The Ten Challenges of the Risen Christ to His Followers, I.   Leave a comment

Part One: The Prelude and the Passion – The Questioning Messiah.

I never get tired of re-reading the gospel narratives of the Passion and Resurrection. As a teacher, I have always been interested in Jesus’ method of asking questions, teaching in a deductive manner which I have sought to use in my own teaching of the Humanities (mainly History and Religious Education) and, in the second half of my career, as a teacher and trainer of students and teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Deductive methods encourage diversity and critical thinking, as opposed to inductive approaches which encourage convergent thinking and focus on the transmission of knowledge, whether in terms of predetermined narratives or structural approaches to language teaching and learning. For Jesus, the books of the Torah, the Hebrew Law, and the eschatological narratives of the prophets were not set in stone but were organic, evolving in interaction with the hearts and minds of the people. That is how the gospels were formed, through a process of enquiry and interpretation.

Jesus did not tell his stories simply to answer questions (or, sometimes, to avoid answering them directly), but to provoke questions, to stab people wide awake, to make them think again, as Alan T Dale (1979) suggested. Dale pointed out that he chose his disciples from those who came up to him to ask him questions about what he was driving at. He didn’t want Yes-men, Dale went on, or people who didn’t want to do any hard thinking. I would add that such people only asked closed questions, requiring a ‘Yes/No’  answer, whereas Jesus preferred open questions; Who is my neighbour? rather than the ‘trick question’ of the religious leaders, Should we pay taxes to Caesar?

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Dale argued that this approach has implications for us in reading the stories Jesus told. We mustn’t ask too quickly, What does this story mean? Instead, we must live with all the stories, not just a few familiar ones, and let them capture our imagination as real stories. We need to read and listen to each story as it was first told, as a whole story, and not to focus only on its moral or its message. The same is true of our need to read the stories about Jesus told by the gospel-writers. We need to suspend our disbelief when we read the accounts of his miracles, rather than approaching them with our own pseudo-scientific or sceptical, historicist, twenty-first-century constructs. This applies especially when we consider the resurrection narratives. Too often we make artificial divisions between the Ministry of Jesus and the Drama of his ‘Last Week’ and the following forty days. In fact, Jesus never stopped teaching, asking and provoking questions among his followers right up until his Ascension. He remained ready to talk about the great issues continuing to confront those who were his witnesses and missionaries, and to deal with, if not always answering, the questions which they raised.

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On the cross, he quoted, as a poet himself, the psalmist’s desperate question, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Psalm 22: 1) Matthew (27: 46) translates this from the Aramaic, Eli, Eli, lama sebachthani? Even then, he was teaching his Galilean witnesses in their own native language, perhaps also leading them in a protest against the authorities, both Roman and Jewish, whose representatives stood nearby, rather than railing against ‘divine providence’. The Judeans mistakenly thought he was calling for Elijah to come and rescue him. Jesus dies before he can continue reciting the Psalm, which goes on to refer to how they part my garments among them by throwing dice (v 18), just as Matthew describes the Roman guards doing after putting Jesus on the cross (v 35). John adds further significant detail to this event, describing how they divided his own clothes into four parts, one part for each soldier, and then took the purple robe, given in jest (in Luke’s account) by Herod Antipas to Jesus. It was made of one piece of woven cloth, without any seams in it. They decide not to tear it, but to throw dice to see who would get it. This happened, John tells us, in order to make the psalmist’s ‘prophecy’ come true:

They divide my clothes among themselves,

And gamble for my robe.

But in addition to this prophecy, the psalmist had answered his own cry when ending his poem on a triumphant note: 

For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;

Neither hath he hid his face from him;

But when he cried unto him, he heard.

 

My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation;

I will pay my vows before them that fear him.

The meek shall eat and be satisfied;

They shall praise the Lord that seek him;

Your heart shall live forever.

 

All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to unto the LORD;

And all the kindred of the nations shall worship before thee.

 

For the kingdom is the LORD’S;

And he is the governor among the nations.

A seed shall serve him;

It shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.

They shall come and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

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Jesus must have been aware of the continuing content of the poem when he shouted out its first lines. He was interrupted by the mocking response of those who shouted abuse of the ignorant crowd who stood close-by and who, not understanding Aramaic, thought he was calling upon Elijah to come to his aid. The prophet had an important role in the Passover celebration since the last act of the Seder, the meal celebrating the unleavened bread, was the symbolic pouring of wine for him, when the door to the home was left open for him to enter and drink. We don’t know whether Jesus intended to recite the whole poem, but that he should choose to do so in his native tongue is hardly surprising, given his upbringing among the Galilean men and women who now stood in a group at a ‘safe’ distance from the Roman executioners, the chief priests and their Judean mob. The four soldiers, no doubt, had their orders to keep the revolutionary northern rabble at a safe distance in case there should be any attempt to remove their ‘Messiah’ from the cross, alive or dead. Only a few of Jesus’ close female relatives, together with John, were allowed to stand close enough to hold a brief conversation with him. Of those present, the gospels only refer to John and Mary, his mother, his aunt, Mary the wife of Cleopas and Mary Magdalene as witnessing the tragedy from the foot of the cross. Other women, including Salome, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the wife of Zebedee, were looking on from a distance, together with the rest of the male disciples.

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The world Jesus had grown up in was full of burning questions which the people of Galilee were continually debating in a dialect that few outsiders, whether Graeco-Roman or Judean would understand. Why indeed, they asked, had their God abandoned them to these foreigners? The psalmist’s poetic hymn of protest would be written in their hearts and memorised, like any well-known folk song. Jesus was one of these simple folk, a Jew and a first century Palestinian, who thought as they did. But they were not fools and were capable of asking very shrewd questions. There were many among them who would not take what was reported, or even inherited, at face value. Reports, assumptions and traditional beliefs could be debated and challenged, or rejected and re-interpreted, as prophets like Nehemiah and Amos, and poets like the author of Job, as well as the psalmist, had shown.

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The arguments had gone on, no less heated, between him and his disciples, walking along the dusty roads or in after-dinner conversations and discussions. Just as he chose these close friends from those who came back to him with open questions, so he encouraged them to keep asking genuine questions. He had no use for the common assumptions and assertions of social and religious orthodoxy. There were plenty of orthodox people around who wanted to stop questions being asked. Jesus would have agreed with Socrates in asking them – if you can’t ask questions, what is the point in living? That’s why his discourses, or conversations, with his disciples, remain so vivid in the memories of witnesses, even in the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension. It was as if the later conversations connected with the earlier ones in a way which now gave them full meaning: 

“People are talking about me,” said Jesus to his friends, as they were walking along the road. “Who do they say I am?”

“Some say John,” they told him. “Others say Elijah, and others say one of the great men of God.”

“But you,” said Jesus, “who do you say I am?”

“You’re God’s Chosen Leader!” said Peter. …

He went on to tell them that he himself – and his friends as well – would have to go through hard times. He would be treated as an enemy of the Jewish Leaders and would have to face death; but his death would not be the end. He was quite open about it. Peter took Jesus on one side and talked seriously to him. Jesus turned round and saw his other friends. He spoke seriously to Peter:

“Out of my sight, tempter!” he said, “You”re not thinking of what God wants. You’re talking like everybody else.”

(Mk. 8: 27-31, Dale’s New World paraphrase)

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Peter and the other disciples had grown up with the idea that God’s chosen leader would establish some kind of national kingdom, with a warrior king like David and a new government. Jesus would have nothing to do with such ideas. He had not come to be that kind of king. There must indeed have been some serious words exchanged in his ‘private’ conversation with Peter. In his account, Mark uses a strong word for ‘rebuke’ or ‘talk straight’ three times, once by Peter and twice by Jesus. Peter could consider himself to have been given a serious ‘ticking off’, but the other disciples must also have thought Jesus’ discourse about suffering utterly impossible to believe. How, they would have asked, could God’s Chosen Leader suffer in any way or die at the hands of the foreigners? In a second difficult conversation, James and John, Jesus’ other fishermen friends, brothers and ‘sons of Zebedee’, came up to Jesus with a question which revealed their own prejudice, based on a general misconception about the ‘Messiah-ship’:

“Sir,” they said, “we’re going to ask you for something and we want you to do it for us.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” asked Jesus.

“When you are a real king,” they said, “make us the chief members of your government.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Jesus. “Can you go through what I must go through?”

“Of course we can!” they said.

“You’ll go through what I must go through all right,” said Jesus. “But I can’t make anybody ‘a chief member of my government’. God has marked out my leaders.”

(Mk. 10: 35-45; Dale)

In his following discourse, Jesus goes on to turn upside down all accepted patterns of ‘greatness’ and what it means to be ‘Number One’. He describes himself as being a ‘slave’ or indentured ‘servant’. He was ‘the servant king’. How, on earth, his followers must have thought, could Jesus compare himself to a farm-labourer on one of the great estates owned by the foreign landlords?

The disciples sometimes recalled some very simple statements, or sayings, which Jesus gave in response to their questions. One of them was given in response to a complicated question by Simon Peter:

“Sir,” he said, ” how often can somebody treat me badly, and I forgive him and be friends with him again?

Will seven times be enough?”

“This isn’t something you can add up like sums,” said Jesus, “the answer is – every time.”  

Peter, being a fisherman, was probably good at sums, but he had a lesson or two to learn about forgiveness, not least his own. Jesus also warned people against taking disputes to court before trying to resolve them among themselves. He suggested that they should first ask themselves the question as to why they couldn’t make up their own minds about what was right and wrong and seek their own resolution to the conflict. All that courts could do was to impose fines and imprisonments, making matters worse, in many cases for both parties. In his controversial ministry, Jesus quickly provoked questions and debates. The fundamental question at stake was what does religion really mean? Is it a matter of rules and regulations? Are these at the heart of religion? Do they come first? Can we have too many of them? Can we begin to think more of them than we should? Are there not more important matters? Many of the questions which were asked by the Jewish Leaders of Jesus may seem petty and trivial to modern minds, but arose from this fundamental question about the nature of religion:

Why don’t these friends of yours keep the old customs? Why do they eat food with “dirty” hands?

Why do John’s friends fast, but your friends don’t?

Jesus’ answer was that the religious ‘Leaders’ were making the people do what they wanted them to do, rather than what God wanted them to do. God had said, Respect your father and mother, but they said that a man must give his money to the Temple first, and needn’t then give anything to his parents. So their “old custom” had taken the place of God’s original commandment. They were simply ‘hypocrites’, playing at being good. For Jesus, real religion was something much greater than keeping rules, however useful they may be in helping the people live in an orderly way. A man can live in such a way, yet still be very irreligious, as Jesus’ own questions to the ‘Leaders’ were designed to demonstrate:

Today is the Holy Day; is making a sick man better today right or wrong?

Is there any of you who wouldn’t pull his son out of the well he’d fallen into, even if it was the Holy Day?

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As far as the question about the friends of John the Baptist fasting was concerned, Jesus recognised that they wanted to trap him into criticising John, who was more old-fashioned in his observance of basic religious rites, as his use of baptism in itself revealed. People recognised that John’s view of religion was different from that of Jesus, but the Galilean was careful not to answer the question in a way which would antagonise ordinary Judeans, and enable ‘the Leaders’ to drive a wedge between the two movements. Therefore, he responded with rhetorical questions which nevertheless confirmed his nonconformity:

Can guests at a wedding leave the wedding breakfast uneaten? What would the bridegroom think?

By his rhetorical response, Jesus showed that for him religion was not about ‘austerity’, especially one which was unequally imposed on impoverished people by those who had plenty, unlike John and his disciples, but about the celebration of life. To follow John was to follow a path of repentance, to follow Jesus was to rejoice. The true legacy of John the Baptist was turned against the Jewish leaders when they challenged him directly in the Temple about the way in which he had cleared the courts of store-keepers and bankers in what he intended as an ‘acted parable’, a public act of protest designed to demonstrate that God’s care was for all people:

“Who told you to do this sort of thing?” they asked.

“Who gave you the right to act like this?”

“I’ll ask you a question first,” said Jesus. “You answer my question and I’ll answer yours. You remember John the Baptist; was he God’s messenger, or just another of these mob-leaders?

You tell me.”

They didn’t know what to say. “If we say, ‘He was God’s messenger’, he’ll say … ‘Why didn’t you join him, then?’

If we say, ‘Oh, just one of these mob-leaders…’.” 

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In asking them a closed question, Jesus was choosing to play them at their own game of entrapment in what was daily becoming a more intense stand-off. They hardly dared finish their sentence among themselves. They were frightened of the crowd of bystanders, for many of the ordinary pilgrims in the Temple regarded John as one of the prophets. They answered that they didn’t know, an option that the question did not allow, as every experienced teacher would point out to a recalcitrant student. So Jesus felt free to opt out of answering their original question. Instead, he told them a story, a parable about a landowner who sent servants to collect his rent, payment in kind, from his tenant-farmers. When they beat up the servants and sent them away empty-handed, he sent his only son, thinking that they would show him greater respect. But they killed him and threw his body outside the farm. This time, he ended his story with a question which he answered himself so that the Jewish Leaders would be in no doubt that the story was aimed at them:

What will the landowner do?

He will come himself, of course, and destroy those farmers and give the farm to others.

These questions and answers show how Jesus dealt with critics. He sometimes responded to a question with another question, trying to make people do their own thinking or to force them, as here, to confront their own hypocrisy and come out into the open. He was also quick to recognise when the question he was being asked was not a genuine one. The Jewish Leaders were like the tenant-farmers who were determined to make the Temple their temple rather than a house of prayer for all nations, as God had intended.  But then, they weren’t interested in asking what God really wanted them to do with it. It was no wonder that they made up their minds that they would not tolerate such radical challenges as these. Not only did they disagree with him fundamentally, but they were frightened that the common people, whose dislike for them was a thinly disguised reality, would take him seriously. That’s why they wanted him to answer their question by declaring that he was acting on God’s authority. Then they could use the Temple Guard to arrest him on a charge of blasphemy. But Jesus didn’t intend to be caught out as easily as that, making a direct statement which could be used against him in court.

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The ‘Leaders’ may have made up their minds to put Jesus on trial in the Sanhedrin after this ‘interaction’, but they knew that a formal interrogation could only succeed against him if they had clearly witnessed statements of his that the chief priests would consider as evidence of blasphemy. Reports of rhetorical questions, figures of speech and parabolic discourse, no matter how radical, would not be enough to convict Jesus of Nazareth of a capital crime. They laid plans to have him arrested, but he kept out of reach, spending the winter in the countryside east of the River Jordan where their writ did not run. But when he came back to the city just before the Passover Festival in the spring, the authorities were ready to act. Two days before the Great Feast, Mark tells us, the Jewish Leaders met to find some way of getting hold of Jesus in order to kill him secretly. They wanted to do this before the main Pesach festival because they feared the people would riot. The eve of the festival, during the Feast of Unleavened Bread would present them with a better opportunity since each family would be celebrating their Seder meal in their own home. They planned, with the help of Judas Iscariot, to arrest him in the darkness of the night in the hillside olive groves outside Jerusalem.

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Mark copied down the earliest account of what happened on that last night of Jesus’ life, but in many ways, John’s account is the fullest and most insightful. It begins with an acted parable, through which Jesus hopes to teach the disciples an important lesson about the new roles they are about to ‘inherit’ from him. By the door of every Palestinian home was kept a bowl of water, so that every visitor, removing their sandals, could have any residual sand from the dusty streets and roads removed. Very often one of the household servants would help them with this. It was not a major task since any self-respecting guest would have washed properly before leaving their own home. Perhaps there was no servant available to perform this task in the hired room since nearly all of them would have been allowed to go home to be with their own families. So, as the disciples came through the door, Jesus rose from the table, tied a towel around his waist, then poured some water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet in turn. When he came to Simon Peter, the fisherman objected:

“Are you going to wash my feet, Lord?”

Jesus answered him, “You do not understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later.”

Peter declared, “Never at any time will you wash my feet!” 

“If I do not wash your feet,” Jesus answered, “You will no longer be my disciple.” …

After Jesus had washed their feet, he put his outer garment back on and returned to his place at the table.

“Do you understand what I have just done to you?” he asked.

“You call me Teacher and ‘Sir’, and it is right that you do so, because that is what I am. I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you. I am telling you the truth: no slave is greater than his master, and no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know this truth, how happy you will be if you put it into practice!”

This is Jesus, as Teacher, was using a method of deduction and example to demonstrate to his disciples how leaders must serve those they lead. In this case, he links the acted parable to a clear explanation, joined by a question, rather than leaving their understanding simply to permeate through their imaginations. They were devout and intelligent men, with a good understanding of the Scriptures, but when all was said and done they were still fishermen, used to hooking fish themselves rather than being hooked by intellectual discourse and inductive teaching. But how were they to be trained to teach themselves, to replace the master-teacher? He demonstrates how to use a physical ‘hook’ when seeking to ‘catch’ the imaginations of men. His non-traditional view of hierarchies of greatness and servitude was not easy for even the most erudite among them to grasp only with their minds, as some of the other intellectual interactions between Jesus and his disciples, already noted, suggest. At one and the same time, he is teaching them a lesson about greatness and keeping his promise to make them into fully trained, fully qualified fishers of men for when he is no longer with them. He has shown them how ‘to fish’ for themselves.

This is the heart of the story of Jesus, the point which John is making when, at the very beginning of his Book of the Passion (Jn. 13: 1-9), the great conclusion of his dramatic presentation of the ministry of Jesus, he places this story as the supremely characteristic story about Jesus. Jesus is teaching them to become both servants and masters; to become message-makers as well as messengers. They have reached the turning point in their training and personal development where they themselves must do what they have just been shown to him.

As he sat down with his twelve companions to share the Seder together, Jesus again ‘put the cat among the pigeons’ by telling them that one of their numbers would betray him. How could he be so hurtful? This time he was teaching them a lesson using an emotional hook. What upset them was that this meal was supposed to be the happiest time in the Jewish calendar, with the entire family sitting around the table. They would each have strong feelings, recollecting with great warmth the exchange of greetings, their childhood homes filled with light, and the meal itself with the four cups of wine, the ‘matzoh’, the cakes of bread, bitter herbs and sweet paste of almonds, apple and wine. The various parts of the meal reminded Jews of their deliverance from the cruelty and enslavement in Egypt. At the commencement of the meal, the youngest son in the family asked four traditional questions which his father would answer in full, showing the way in which the younger generation should be taught.

Jesus was now using an emotional ‘hook’ to teach them a hard, hurtful, experiential lesson about the real costs of family life and what we might call today, ‘tough love’. He wanted them to look forward to the pain and suffering to come, rather than simply looking back to past pleasures. Of course, as C. S. Lewis would remark, the one informs the other; it is not exclusive, but inclusive of the other. But family life is not one long party, as they themselves were soon to discover. Mark and all the other gospel writers tell us that the disciples began to react to Jesus’ interruption of these traditions by asking him, one after the other, Surely you don’t mean me, do you? Jesus answered:

It’s one of the “Twelve” … He is sharing this very meal with me. … What is going to happen is just what the Bible said would happen. But it will be a terrible thing for the man who betrays me; it would be better for him if he had never lived.

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One of them is about to become the ‘black sheep of the family’ since every family must have one. In Matthew’s account, Judas is identified as ‘the traitor’ by Jesus. Luke also inserts a discourse about the continuing dispute among the disciples about ‘greatness’, similar in content to Jesus’ earlier conversation with James and John, and a recapitulation of the theme of the acted parable of feet-washing recorded by John. Jesus, perhaps referring to the Seder tradition of having the youngest son ask the four questions of his father, tells them:

… the greatest one among you must be like the youngest, and the leader must be like the servant.

Who is greater, the one who sits down to eat or the one who serves him?

The one who sits down, of course. But I am among you as the one who serves.

When the ‘supper’ was over, they sang a traditional hymn and walked out to the Mount of Olives on the way towards the village of Bethany, where Jesus was staying. On the way, he told them more directly, but still using metaphors from Scripture (Zechariah 13: 7), that their ‘family’ was about to be broken up:

I will strike the shepherd,

And the sheep will run away.   

Peter protested that though everyone else might let him down, he never would. But Jesus told him that before dawn that night, he, Peter, would say three times that he was no friend of his. Peter answered, even more hotly:

Say I’m no friend of yours? I’d die with you first.

Everybody else said the same. In John’s gospel, Peter wants to know what Jesus meant when he said, in conversation over supper, that they could not go where he was going. Jesus replies that he would follow him later, but Peter wants to know why he can’t follow him then and there since he is ready to die for him. Jesus asks him:

Are you really ready to die for me?

Jesus tells them not to be worried or upset, that there are many rooms in my Father’s house, and that he was going to prepare places for them there. Then Thomas asks him, ever the sceptic, his understanding frustrated by Jesus’ continual use of figures of speech:

Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?

Jesus answers, again speaking figuratively:

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me. Now that you have known me … you will know my Father also, and from now on you do know him and you have seen him.

So Philip asks:

Lord, show us the Father; that is all we need.

Jesus answers him with questions:

For a long time I have been with you all; yet you do not know me, Philip? 

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.

Why, then, do you say, “Show us the Father?”

Do you not believe, Philip, that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? 

More figures of speech, the disciples think. The other Judas, not Iscariot, asks him:

Lord, how can it be that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?

Jesus answers him:

Whoever loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and my Father and I will come to him and live with him. Whoever does not love me does not obey my teaching. And the teaching you have heard is not mine, but comes from the Father, who sent me.

Peace is what I leave you with; it is my own peace I give you. I do not give it as the world does. 

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When they got to the olive groves, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron Brook, asking them to keep watch while he prayed a little further on. When he returned to them, he found them asleep. He spoke to Peter:

Simon, are you asleep?

Weren’t you able to stay awake for even one hour?

So much, then, for Peter’s promises of providing protection for Jesus. Twice more he returned to them, finding them unable to keep their eyes open, and on the third occasion he remarked:

Are you still sleeping and resting?

Enough! The hour has come! Look, the Son of Man is now being handed over to the power of sinful men…

Judas Iscariot knew exactly where Jesus would be because Jesus had met his disciples there many times before. At that moment, Judas arrived with a gang armed with swords and clubs, sent there by the Jewish Leaders, some of whom are present, together with Temple Guards and a small group of Roman soldiers. The High Priests and the Sanhedrin did not have the power to arrest a citizen. That power belonged exclusively to the Roman procurator and court, which exercised direct rule over the whole of Judea. An arrest could only be carried out by a Roman guard on the orders of the Roman authorities in response to a complaint recognised under the Roman law. The Temple Guard, as their name suggests, were only responsible for keeping order within the Temple precincts. Besides their arms, they carried lanterns and torches. Luke has the most graphic portrayal of Judas’ betrayal, using the secret signal of a kiss:

He came up to Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you betray the Son of Man?”

Luke tells us that the disciples had two swords with them when they left the ‘upper room’. They make Jesus aware of this and he tells them, that is enough! Rather than meaning ‘that is sufficient’, he may well have meant ‘that is enough fighting talk’ in the light of what takes place subsequently, but this may have been a crucial misunderstanding of Jesus’ discourse in the previous passage. Now, as Jesus is about to be arrested, they spring into action…  

When the disciples who were with Jesus saw what was going to happen, they asked, “Shall we use our swords, Lord?”

They arrested Jesus, despite the attempts of Peter to prevent this by attacking the High Priest’s steward, Malchus. He drew his sword but succeeded only in cutting off the steward’s ear. In Matthew’s account, Jesus chided the assailant and challenges him with two questions:

Put your sword back in its place … All who live by the sword, will die by the sword …

Don’t you know that I could call on my Father for help, and at once he would send me more than twelve armies of angels?

But in that case, how would the Scriptures come true which say that this is what must happen? 

Do you think that I will not drink the cup of suffering which my Father has given me?

(Jn. 18: 11) 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus remarks, Enough of this! By this, as in the ‘Upper Room’ before, he seems to have meant ‘enough of this fighting!’ He then heals the injured man before addressing the crowd of men, questioning their jurisdiction and the legality of them making an arrest not just outside the Temple precincts, but also outside the walls of Jerusalem:

Did you have to come with swords and clubs to capture me, as though I were an outlaw?

Day after day, I was with you in the Temple, and you did not arrest me.

But this is your hour to act, when the power of darkness rules.

Jesus himself offered no resistance. Then, just as he had predicted earlier that night, all the disciples ran away, including a certain young man, possibly Mark himself, some scholars suggest, dressed only in his linen night ‘shift’, whom the gang caught and tried to arrest. He managed to struggle free and ran away naked, leaving the ‘shift’ behind. This suggests that the young man may have been asleep in the house with the upper room, perhaps being sent to bed gone to bed after having asked the four questions at the commencement of the Seder. He would have been woken up by the sound of the disciples leaving, singing their hymn, and followed them through the olive groves. This somewhat ‘vivid’ account only appears in Mark’s gospel, hence the reason that some scholars regard it as a personal note which the other gospel-writers chose not to copy into their accounts, though they copied so much else of his basic narrative.

Jesus was taken to the High Priests’ house, where he is first interviewed by Annas, to whom he repeats the challenge about the legality of his arrest and the proceedings against him. He also suggests that a wide range of witnesses who heard him speak in the Temple should be called to testify, anticipating the kind of evidence which will be presented against him. For talking like this to the High Priest, he is struck by one of the guards. The Sanhedrin is beginning to assemble, called to an emergency session at midnight for the sole purpose of trying Jesus of Nazareth as a priestly court, although they were only supposed to act as a religious legislature. The timing of the hearing was also a breach of the accepted judicial process since the Roman law did not permit court hearings to be held after sunset, even as an emergency measure. Moreover, a trial for life was exclusively the prerogative of the Roman court, to be held only before the Roman Procurator. The ultra-vires practices of Annas and Caiaphas reveal the desperate position in which the Sanhedrin viewed the insecurity of their own situation as being undermined by the popularity of the Galilean’s teachings. Jesus challenges the irregularity of the proceedings by asking Annas to refer the matter to the Council, so Annas decides to let his son-in-law take charge of them.

Peter had followed Jesus at a distance from the olive groves, stopping in the courtyard of the house, where he sat down with the guards, warming himself by the fire. To begin with, Jesus remained silent in response to the accusations made against him, which were clearly based on false statements by the ‘witnesses’ called. However, the little-known Gospel of Nicodemus also reveals that there was a concerted attempt made to provide a defence of Jesus by men who knew that the very act of their challenge had signed and sealed their own death warrant. Caiaphas soon tired of this, however, and decided to prosecute the Galilean directly, placing him under oath (according to Matthew). In the confusion created by the confused testimony of the bribed ‘witnesses’, who contradicted each other, he saw the danger that the trial might collapse, thwarting his plans that one man should die for all the people. His decision to take the prosecution into his own hands was a legal travesty that went against all Jewish jurisprudence. He conducted a vindictive cross-examination of the Prisoner. Jesus seemed to remain unperturbed, offering no reply until Caiaphas asked him a closed question to which he had to respond under oath:

Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed God?

To this, Jesus could only affirm his status, knowing that he was destined to die. This enabled Caiaphas to enter the charge of Blasphemy, asking the Council to decide on his guilt. Mark tells us that they all voted that he was guilty and agreed that he should be executed, although other sources suggest that some may have voted for the dismissal of the case and for Jesus to be released. In Luke’s narrative, Jesus initially answers this question by commenting on their method of interrogation, also making reference to their previous reluctance, in the Temple Courtyard, to answer his question about John the Baptist’s legacy:

“If I tell you, you will not believe me; and if I ask you a question, you will not answer … But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right side of Almighty God”.

They all said, “Are you, then, the Son of God?”

He answered them, “You say that I am”.

And they said, “We don’t need any witnesses! We ourselves have heard what he said.

Jesus’ answer is not as categorical in Luke’s account as in that of Mark, but his use of ‘I am’ seems to have been taken by the Sanhedrin to refer to the sacred word for God, ‘Yahweh’ in Hebrew, which only the chief priests were supposed to use, and only in worship. Its use by Jesus, even with ambivalence, would be considered blasphemous at the time. The next step was for him to be taken before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate since the Sanhedrin could not carry out the death sentence by itself under the dictated terms of the Roman occupation. Only the Roman Procurator could try such a case and only he could legally impose the death penalty. This Caiaphas demanded, but Pilate was only interested in executing those who threatened Roman law and order, on a charge of treason, and did not wish to be troubled with all the charges brought against Jesus by the chief priests, especially those of blasphemy. The Romans were disparaging rather than respectful of the Jews’ religion and regarded all Jews, including their leadership, with contempt and scorn as vassal subjects of the Roman Empire. The rather weak claims that Jesus had been heard misleading our people, and telling them not to pay taxes to the Emperor were worthy of a whipping, nothing more. Their third accusation, that he was claiming that he himself is the Messiah, a king, was rather more interesting for the Governor, so his question to Jesus was simple:

Are you the king of the Jews?

In John’s gospel, Jesus answered:

Does this question come from you or have others told you about me? 

Pilate replied, frustrated by what he took to be an avoidance strategy:

Do you think that I am a Jew? It was your own people and the high priests who handed you over to me. What have you done?

Jesus mystified Pilate even more by his response:

My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here! 

So Pilate repeated his original question:

Are you a king, then?

Jesus spoke of truth to challenge Pilate’s view of power:

You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me.

By replying “so you say” to Pilate’s core question, Jesus was pointing out that this was something that he could neither affirm or deny, but only Pilate to decide, not something that he himself had claimed. Jesus had claimed to be the ‘Messiah’ but he had been consistent that this did not mean that he was an earthly ‘king’ like Herod the Great or the other Jewish rulers tolerated by the Romans. Nevertheless, this was the charge which Pilate entered. Pilate responds to Jesus’ attempt to explain his real purpose, infamously, with the question:

And what is truth?

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The writer of the score of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice, added the words, “We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?” This follow-up question emphasises the essential clash between Graeco-Roman and Jewish thought. For the former, ‘truth’ could be relative and plural, whereas, for Jews, there was only one eternal truth, that given by God through the Law. The question as to who best represented this truth, the Jewish Leaders or Jesus, was what the trial in the Sanhedrin had been about. Jesus had also claimed that his purpose was not to change the Law, but to fulfil it and to make it universal. Temporal powers could not determine this real truth, or change it. But, as one modern poet has put it, Pilate would not stay for an answer. Instead, according to John, he went back outside and asked the crowd outside his palace, the chief priests’ Judean ‘rent-a-mob’, if, according to the custom, they wanted him to set Jesus, ‘the king of the Jews’ free, or to release Jesus Barabbas the bandit. The chief priests incited the crowd to shout for Barabbas, who had been charged with murder, committed during the recent riot which he had fermented. Barabbas was released, though two lesser-known bandits were later executed with Jesus.

During his ‘interview’ with Pilate, the governor, finding no reason to condemn this man, discovered that Jesus is a Galilean. Luke inserts a section describing a further hearing before Herod Antipas, who was in charge of the northern territories or ‘tetrarchy’ of Palestine, including Galilee. We are told that Herod was interested in Jesus as a miracle-worker, and had been wanting to meet him for a long time. Besides wanting Jesus to perform a miracle for him, he asked Jesus many questions, but Jesus made no answer. So his soldiers made fun of him, putting a kingly purple robe on him, in which they sent him back to Pilate. The Governor was still not convinced that this prisoner deserved death, according to Luke. He tried to appease the crowd outside his palace, but they answered back that, according to Jewish law, his death was required on the charge of blasphemy, because he claimed to be the Son of God. Pilate understood the ‘claim’ of Jesus to be ‘a king’, but not this claim to be divine. His multi-theistic views made him nervous about killing someone claiming divine powers. What if Jesus did, indeed, possess such powers. So he went back into the palace and asked Jesus:

Where do you come from?

But Jesus did not answer, though, as Pilate himself pointed out, the governor had the authority to set him free, or to have him crucified. This confirms that, ultimately, the decision to have Jesus crucified was a Roman one. Jesus told him that the authority he had over him as governor was given to him by God and that the man who had handed him over for sentence, the High Priest, was guilty of a worse sin. Even if his ‘sin’ were seen as a lesser one, he might still incur the displeasure of the gods. Pilate tried to have Jesus released, but the chief priests threatened to have reports sent to the Emperor showing how Pilate was a friend of a rebel, and therefore disloyal. They claimed to be more loyal to the Emperor than him, getting the crowd to shout, the only king we have is the Emperor. With that, the fate of Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, was sealed. Pilate decided on the answer to his own question to Jesus, even if Jesus himself had only really answered the question put to him by Caiaphas.

Matthew’s gospel records (27: 19) that Pilate’s wife had a dream on the night of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, which led her to plead with him to have nothing to do with the trial of ‘that just man’. Pilate usually deferred to his wife, since he owed his exalted position to he social eminence his marriage had brought. His wife was Claudia Procula, the illegitimate daughter of Claudia, the third wife of Tiberius Caesar, and grand-daughter of Augustus Caesar. Pilate knew that the Emperor, against whom he had plotted, was very fond of his step-daughter and, being an astute politician, he granted her every wish and whim. For him to deny Claudia’s urgent request demonstrates how seriously Pilate considered the possibility that news of his ‘weakness’ in this case might get back to the Emperor. Either way, he couldn’t win, but he had much more to lose from failing to appease Caiaphas, who may have known of his previous plotting against Tiberius Caesar. At heart, Pilate was not in sympathy with the demands of Caiaphas and the Sadducees, finding no basis in their charges against Jesus of Nazareth, but he dared not risk his public position because of private forebodings. So he acceded to the murderous demands of the chief priests. The dream that tortured Pilate’s wife on the previous night had foretold disaster if he judged Jesus. It came true when later, according to Eusebius, Pilate committed suicide. 

The accounts of the crucifixion in the synoptic gospels were written down later in the first century at a time when there was much bitterness between the Jewish and Christian communities. The gospel-writers, therefore, emphasise the Jewish role in Jesus’ death, that is the role of the Temple authorities. Matthew’s account goes further than this, in attributing responsibility to the crowd and having Pilate wash his hands in front of them, but even Matthew agrees that the chief priests acted as ‘cheerleaders’ among the crowd. Those who cried ‘crucify!’ outside Pilate’s palace were not likely to have included the pilgrims from Galilee and elsewhere who were entering the city that morning and who would have been directed to the Temple, neither were they Judeans from outside the city, of whom the authorities were afraid. They were more probably the same ‘gang’ or ‘mob’ whom the chief priests had sent to the Mount of Olives to arrest Jesus the previous night, mixed together with the ‘bandits’ who shouted for Barabbas’ release. If the Temple authorities were unscrupulous and desperate enough to pay Judas for handing Jesus over to them, dismissing him out-of-hand when he tried to stop the execution, there can be little doubt that they would pay the same crowd who had accompanied him to make sure that Pilate couldn’t release Jesus of Nazareth.

Can there be any doubt that Pilate made the irrevocable decision to have Jesus crucified? After all, any suggestion of a threat to the Roman ‘Pax’, especially at the height of the festival, would have forced the Governor to act quickly. The fact that some of Jesus’ followers were known to have been armed the previous night during his arrest would have left him no room for manoeuvre unless the crowd had demanded his clemency for the Galilean radical rather than the Judean Zealot. Both, as far as Pilate was concerned, posed a physical threat to Rome’s rule. Jesus was executed by the Roman governor on political grounds, as ‘The King of the Jews’. The charge of high treason against Caesar stood and was fastened to the cross. John tells us that the notice was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. He also tells us that the chief priests tried to persuade Pilate to change the wording to This man said, I am the King of the Jews, but that the Governor refused either to remove it or to change the words. He told them What I have written stays written.

From the beginning to the end the arrest and dual trial was a vicious frame-up, a betrayal and a travesty of justice. From the dark hour in the garden to the crucifixion, the plot was hurried to its conclusion by the High Priests and the Sadducee Party. The murmurings among the people had been growing louder and, following the fatal verdict, the whole of Jerusalem seethed with fear and unrest. Caiaphas and his fanatical collaborators had triumphed but the Romans still held the lash and would not hesitate to use it unmercifully on the slightest provocation or interference. So greatly did terror prevail throughout Jerusalem that everyone known to have associated with Jesus in even the slightest way fled into hiding. As mentioned above, most of the disciples had fled from the Mount of Olives. Of the twelve, only John is recorded by name as being present at the crucifixion. He stood at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, her sister and Mary Magdalene.

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The Bethany sisters, Martha and Mary, are not mentioned by name in the account of the crucifixion, but they may well have been in the crowd of women who had followed Jesus out of Jerusalem, weeping. It was only natural for them since the account of the raising of Lazarus suggests that they already knew many Judeans, including supporters of the Pharisees, who had reported on the event to the chief priests. The raising of Lazarus had attracted a great deal of attention, making the sisters vulnerable as well. The miracle had added greatly to Jesus’ popularity among Judeans, and the chief priests were jealous, so Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas, the reigning High Priests, hatched a plot in the Sanhedrin to have both Jesus and Lazarus killed. The threat had been so severe that Jesus had gone into hiding in the Judean desert town Ephraim, with his disciples, probably tipped off by his supporters in the Sanhedrin.

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The chief priests had succeeded in having Jesus executed, so it was only a matter of time before they would come for Lazarus. The two sisters were probably safer in public among their many Judean friends, rather than being seen with their Galilean guests. Luke implies that when the ‘women of Salem’ returned to their homes following his death, those ‘who knew Jesus personally’ joined the Galileans watching from a distance as Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body in a linen cloth. Luke records the group of women following Joseph to his nearby unused tomb, carved out of the solid rock in the Skull-shaped quarry which had been transformed into a garden. They watched carefully how Joseph placed the body in the tomb so that they would know exactly how to locate both the tomb and the body within it when they came back after the Sabbath to complete the embalming process which Joseph and Nicodemus were to begin before dusk. They went ‘home’, probably to where they were staying in Bethany, and prepared the spices and perfumes for the body.

The death of Jesus, we know now, was not the end, but the beginning. The stories of his life and ministry are not cold historical accounts. They were all written in the blaze of light created by the amazing new experiences which followed his death. We need to consider the reports of these decisive experiences not as though they were something that just happened in the past, but which have an enduring contemporary quality for all who have subsequently accepted Jesus as Lord. Without them, there would have been no contemporary Christian community; only, possibly, a dwindling Jewish sect, one among many, which would most likely have been scattered and destroyed in the war of AD 66-70. Neither, of course, would there have been two millennia of Christianity, European Christendom, and a world-wide Christian faith, with its many churches. That is why, fundamentally, we cannot separate Jesus as the master-teacher from Jesus as Lord, and why we cannot suspend our belief in what is reported to have happened after his crucifixion if we seek to own the title ‘Christian’.

Sources:

Robert C. Walton (ed.) (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM

George F. Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London. Covenant Publishing.

Briggs, Linder & Wright (eds.)(1977), The History of Christianity: A Lion Handbook. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Alan T. Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Five   Leave a comment

Part Five – The Peasants’ War of 1525: A Puritan Revolution?

The causes of the German Peasants’ War have been a subject of controversy among historians for a considerable time. They generally agree that the background of the rising of 1525 resembled that of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, rather than the Puritan revolts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which men and women of lower orders in society were also involved. Neither did the Peasants’ War in Germany resemble previous local revolts among the Jacquerie of France which were usually of a purely local nature, related to abuses of feudal rights by particular lords. For one thing, the German peasant class was not uniformly impoverished; the initiative for the redress of grievances came not from the downtrodden, but rather from the more prosperous and enterprising, possessed themselves of both lands and a respectable competence in farming them. In fact, the well-being of the German peasantry throughout the territories was better than it had ever been, and those who took the initiative in the insurrection, far from being driven on by sheer misery and desperation, belonged to a rising and self-confident class. They were people whose position was improving both socially and economically and who, for that very reason, were impatient for the obstacles which stood in the way of their further advance to be removed.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in their efforts to remove these obstacles for themselves, the peasants showed that they were not at all eschatologically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realizable possibilities. The most that a peasant community ever sought under the leadership of its own peasant aristocracy was local self-government. The first stage of the movement, from March 1525 to the beginning of May, consisted simply of a series of local struggles in which a great number of communities really did extract from their immediate lords, ecclesiastical or lay, concessions giving them greater autonomy. This was achieved, not through bloodshed but by an intensification of the tough, hard-headed bargaining which the peasantry had been conducting for generations.

Underlying the rising there was, however, a deeper conflict. With the progressive collapse of the royal power, the German state had disintegrated into a welter of discordant and often warring feudal authorities. But by 1525 this condition of near anarchy was approaching its end, for the great territorial princes were busily creating their absolutist principalities. The peasantry saw its traditional way of life disrupted and its inherited rights threatened by the development of new types of states. It resented the additional taxes, the substitution of Roman Law for ‘custom’, the interference of centralised administration in local affairs, and it fought back. The law was being unified by displacing the local codes in favour of Roman Law whereby the peasant again suffered since that Law knew only private property and therefore imperilled the commons – the woods, streams and meadows shared by the community in old Germanic tradition. The Roman Law also only had three categories of peasant – free men, freedmen and slaves. It had no category which quite fitted the medieval serf.

The princes, for their part, realized clearly enough that the peasantry stood in their way of their plans for state-building and that the peasant insurrection offered them a chance to assert and consolidate their authority. It was they, or rather a particular group of them, who saw to it that the rising ended catastrophically, in a series of battles or massacres, in which perhaps as many as a hundred thousand peasants were killed. It was also those princely dynasties which gained most from the reduction alike of the peasantry, the lower nobility and the ecclesiastical foundations to a condition of hopeless dependence which was to last for centuries.

Another change, associated with the revival of commerce in cities after the crusades, was the substitution of exchange in coin for exchange in kind. The increased demand in precious metals enhanced their value; the peasants, who had at first benefited from the payment of a fixed sum of money rather than a percentage in kind, found themselves hurt by deflation. Those who could not meet the imposts sank from freeholders to renters, and from renters to serfs. The solution which at first presented itself to the peasants was simply to resist the changes as they operated in their society and return to ‘the good old ways’. They did not, to begin with, demand the abolition of serfdom but only the prevention of any further extension of peonage. They demanded a return to the free use of the woods, waters and meadows; the reduction of imposts and the reinstatement of ancient Germanic law and local custom. The methods used in the attainment of these ends were at first conservative. On the occasion of a special grievance, the peasants would assemble in thousands in quite spontaneous fashion and would present their petitions to the rulers with a request for arbitration. Not infrequently the petition was received in a patriarchal manner and the burdens were in some measure eased, yet never to the extent of forestalling a future recurrence.

Somewhat inevitably, therefore, the peasants’ demands began to go beyond economic amelioration to political programmes designed to ensure an influence commensurate with and even exceeding their economic importance. The demands also changed as the movement worked north to the region around the big bend of the Rhine where peasants were also townsmen, since artisans were farmers. In this area, urban aspirations were added to agrarian concerns. Further down the Rhine, the struggle became almost wholly urban, and the characteristic programme called for a more democratic complexion in the town councils, a less restrictive membership in the guilds, the subjection of the clergy to civil burdens and uncurtailed rights for citizens to engage in brewing.

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Many of these demands had coalesced in a movement in Alsace which had taken place just prior to the Reformation. This movement had used the symbol which became characteristic of the Peasants’ War of 1525. This was the Bundschuh, deriving its name from the traditional leather shoe of the peasant. The word had a double meaning because Bund was also the word for an ‘association’ or ‘covenant’. Müntzer had already used for his ‘covenant of the elect’ and before that, the peasants had adopted the term for a ‘compact’ of revolution. The aims of this Bundschuh had centred not so much on economics as on politics. Its adherents believed that ‘the axe should be laid to the root of the tree’ and all government abolished save that of the pope and the emperor. These were the two traditional ‘swords of Christendom’, the joint rulers of a universal society. To them, the little men had always turned for protection against overlords, bishops, metropolitans, knights and princes. The Bundschuh proposed to complete the process by wiping out all the intermediate grades and leaving only the two great lords, Caesar and the Apostle.

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Prior to the Peasants’ War of 1525, therefore, this movement was often anticlerical, but not anti-Catholic. Bishops and Abbots were resented as great landowners and exploiters, but “Down with the bishop” did not mean “Down with the Church.” The banners of the Bundschuh often carried, besides the shoe, some religious symbol, such as a picture of the Virgin, a crucifix, or a papal tiara. The woodcut shown below shows the crucifix resting on a black shoe. On the right, a group of peasants are tilling the soil, and Abraham is sacrificing Isaac, a sign of the potential cost of being a member of the Bund. A movement so religiously minded could not but be affected by the Reformation. Luther’s Freedom of the Christian Man was purely religious but could very readily be given a social turn. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ did not mean for him egalitarianism, but it did for Carlstadt. Luther had certainly blasted usury and in 1524 had come out with another tract on the subject, in which he also attacked the subterfuge of annuities, a device whereby capital was loaned in perpetuity for an annual return. His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants, with good reason, felt strongly drawn to Luther. 

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The part played by Thomas Müntzer in the Peasants’ War as a whole has often been exaggerated. The main theatres of the struggle were the areas where the development of the new states had gone the furthest. These all lay in southern and western Germany, which had already seen many peasant risings in the years before 1525; there, Müntzer seems to have had no influence at all. In Thuringia however, the situation was a peculiar one, for there had been no previous peasant revolts and there was little sign of an impending revolt even in 1525. The insurrection came very late and took a curiously anarchic form. Whereas in the south and west the peasants had conducted themselves in an orderly and disciplined fashion, in Thuringia they formed small, unorganised bands which scoured the countryside, looting and burning monasteries and convents. It may well be that these outbreaks were encouraged, if not caused, by the agitation which Müntzer had been conducting.

The hardcore of Müntzer’s following still consisted of the League of the Elect. Some of his congregation from Allstedt joined him at Mühlhausen and no doubt helped him in building up a new organisation. Above all, he continued to rely on the workers from the copper-mines at Mansfeld, who had joined the League in their hundreds. These workers, often recruited from abroad, often migrants, often exposed to unemployment and every kind of insecurity, were notoriously prone to revolutionary excitement, just as were the weavers, and they were correspondingly dreaded by the authorities. That he was able to command such a following naturally gave Müntzer a great reputation as a revolutionary leader; so that, if in Mühlhausen itself he never rivalled Pfeiffer in influence, in the context of the peasant insurrection he loomed far larger. Although, as their written demands clearly show, the Thuringian peasants did not share Müntzer’s millenarian fantasies, they certainly looked up to him as the one famous, learned and pious man who had unreservedly thrown in his lot with theirs. They certainly had no other leader.

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When the ‘great upheaval’ came in 1525, the polemical papalist cartoonists lost no time in portraying Luther as the leader of the Bundschuh, and the Catholic princes never ceased to hold him responsible for the uprising. Some historians have also tried to prove that Luther was actually the author of the movement which he so vehemently repudiated. Such an explanation fails to take account of more than a century of agrarian unrest which preceded the Reformation.

One contributory factor as to why the revolts were so widespread in 1525, which had nothing to do with Luther or his Reformation, was astrology, which had remained an important feature of medieval life alongside the Church. Medicine, in particular, was largely determined by the theory of the four humours, relating the bodily fluids to the movements of the planets and stars. Since ancient times, heavenly signs were taken to be harbingers and forebodings of great events.

Astrological speculation may well explain why so many uprisings were in the constellation of the occurred in 1524-25, as it was in 1524 that all planets were in the constellation of the Fish. This had been foreseen twenty years earlier and a great disturbance had been predicted for that year. As the time approached, the foreboding was so intense that in 1523 no fewer than fifty-one tracts were published on the subject. Woodcuts like the one below displayed the fish in the heavens and upheavals upon earth. The peasants with their banners and flails watch on one side, while on the other the emperor, the pope and the ecclesiastics all gather. Some peasant leaders held back from taking action before 1524 in the hope that the emperor would call an imperial diet to redress their grievances in 1524. The Diet of Nürnberg had taken place in March 1523 and had deferred action on reform until a second diet could be called to issue an Edict on 18 April 1524. This did nothing to deal with peasant grievances, however, and another diet was not due until the summer of 1526. In the meantime, the ‘great fish’ unloosed the waters upon the peasants, princes, prelates and papacy.

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All this was foreign superstition to Luther, if not entirely to Melanchthon, but at the same time, he could not claim a complete dissociation with the outbreak of the Peasants’ War. The attempts to enforce the imperial edicts through the arrest of Lutheran pastors were often the immediate cause of assemblies of peasant bands to demand their release. Luther was regarded as a friend by these peasants, and when some of them were asked to name persons whom they would accept as their arbiters, the first name on the list was Martin Luther. No formal court was ever established to try the peasants for rebellion, and no legal judgement was ever given. But Luther himself did pronounce a verdict on their demands as couched in the most popular of their manifestoes, The Twelve Articles, first distributed in March 1525. These opened with conciliatory phrases reminiscent of those used by Luther himself in his Address to the German Nobility and On the Freedom of the Christian Man of 1520:

To the Christian reader, peace and the grace of God through Christ… The gospel is not a cause of rebellion and disturbance… If it be the will of God to hear the peasants, who will resist his Majesty? Did he not hear the children of Israel and deliver them out of the hand of Pharaoh? 

The first articles have to do with the Church. The congregation should have the right to appoint and remove the minister, who is to preach the Holy Gospel without human addition, a phrase which sounds as if Luther could have written it. Ministers were to be supported on a modest stipend by congregations out of the so-called great tithe on produce. The surplus should go to relieve the poor and to obviate emergency taxation in war. The so-called little tithe on cattle should be abolished, for the Lord God created cattle for the free use of man. The main articles embodied the old agrarian programme of common fields, forests and waters. The farmer should be free to hunt, to fish, and to protect his lands against game. Under supervision, he might take wood for fuel and building. Death dues, which impoverish the widow and orphan by requisitioning the best cloak or the best cow, were to be abolished. Rents should be revised in accord with the productivity of the land. New laws should not displace the old, and the community meadows should not pass into private hands.

The only article which exceeded the old demands was the one calling for the total abolition of serfdom. Land should be held on lease with stipulated conditions. If any labour in excess of the agreement was exacted by the lord, he should pay for it on a wage basis. The Twelve Articles conceded that any demand not consonant with the Word of God should be null. The whole programme was a conservative one, in line with the traditional feudal economy. Notably, there was no attack on legitimate government. The evangelical tone of the articles pleased Luther, but in addressing the peasants he disparaged most of their demands. As to the right of the congregation to choose its own pastor, it would depend on whether they would pay his stipend. The abolition of tithes would be highway robbery and the abrogation of serfdom would be turning Christian liberty into a thing of the flesh.

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Having thus criticised their programme, Luther then turned to the means envisaged for its realisation. Under no circumstances, Luther declared, must the common man seize the sword on his own behalf. If each man were to take justice into his own hands, there would be neither authority, government, nor order nor land, but only murder and bloodshed. But all this was not intended to justify the unspeakable wrongs perpetrated by the rulers. To the princes, Luther addressed an appeal in which he justified many more of the peasant demands than he had done when speaking to them. He told them that the will of the congregation should be respected in the choice of a minister, just as he had told the peasants that they should not rebel against the opinion of the prince. The demands of the peasants for redress of their grievances were fair and just and the princes had no-one but themselves to blame for these disorders. They had done nothing but disport themselves in grandeur while robbing and flaying their subjects. The true solution was by the traditional means of arbitration.

But neither side was disposed to take that course and Luther’s prediction was all too abundantly fulfilled, that nothing would ensue but murder and bloodshed. Luther had long since declared that he would not support the private citizen taking up arms, however just the cause, since such means inevitably entailed wrong to the innocent. He could not envisage an orderly revolution, much less a nonviolent one. Indeed, it is difficult for historians to envisage how there could have been one in the early sixteenth century, or even in the following century, given the amount of bloodshed in wars and rebellions throughout Europe. The Peasants’ War lacked the cohesion of the Puritan Revolution because there was no clear-cut programme and no coherent leadership. Some groups wanted a peasant dictatorship, some a classless society, some a return to feudalism, some the abolition of all rulers except the pope and the emperor.

The separate bands were not coordinated; their chiefs were sometimes peasants, sometimes sectaries, like Müntzer, and sometimes even knights. There was not even unity in religion since there were ‘Papalists’ and ‘Lutherans’ on both sides, though the distinction was not yet a clear one. In Alsace, where the programme called for the elimination of the pope, the struggle took on the complexion of a religious war. The Duke and his brother, the Cardinal, hunted the peasants as unbelieving, divisive, undisciplined Lutherans, ravaging like Huns and Vandals. There can be no question that the hordes were undisciplined, interested mainly in pillaging castles and cloisters, raiding game, and depleting fish ponds. The drawing below of the plundering of a cloister is typical of the Peasants’ War. Observe the group in the upper left with a net in the fish pond. Some are carrying off provisions. The bloodshed does not appear to be considerable, though one man has lost a hand. At various points peasants are guzzling and vomiting, justifying the stricture that the struggle was not so much a peasants’ war as a ‘wine fest’.

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A further glimpse of the peasants’ behaviour is revealed in a letter from an abbess who says that her cloister was raided until not an egg nor a pat of butter was left. Through their windows, the nuns could see the populace being abused and the smoke rising from burning castles. When the war ended, seventy cloisters had been demolished in Thuringia, in Franconia 270 castles and 52 cloisters. When the Palatinate succumbed to the peasants, the disorder was so great that their own leaders had to invite the former authorities to return to assist in the restoration of order. But the authorities preferred to wait until the peasants had first been beaten.

There was no one individual, not even the emperor, who could have carried through an alternative, constructive plan for bringing the peasants into the new economic and political order of the sixteenth century. The only other man who was sufficiently well-known and trusted throughout Germany was Martin Luther, but he refused, not out of cowardice but because he believed that it was the role of the magistrate to keep the peace. The magistrate must also, if necessary, wield the sword. It was certainly not for him to forsake his ministry for the sword and, by leading the peasants, to establish a new theocracy of the saints to replace the papal one he had not yet fully demolished. That would be a betrayal of his territorial Reformation.

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Yet Luther would never have condemned the peasants quite so savagely had it not been that there was someone else who aspired to the role he himself rejected. In Saxony there would have been no Peasants’ War  without Thomas Müntzer. After all his wanderings across Germany to Bohemia and the Swiss borders, he had now, at last, found in the peasants the Bund of the Elect who would slaughter the ungodly and erect the kingdom of the saints. The point was not the redress of economic grievance, which in Saxony was not as acute as elsewhere, since serfdom had long since been abolished there. Müntzer was interested in economic amelioration only for the sake of religion, and he did have the insight to see what no one else in his generation observed, that faith itself does not thrive on physical exhaustion. He renewed his attack on Luther on this point, in familiar terms:

Luther says that the poor people have enough in their faith. Doesn’t he see that usury and taxes impede the reception of the faith? He claims that the Word of God is sufficient. Doesn’t he realise that men whose every moment is consumed in the making of a living have no time to learn to read the Word of God? The princes bleed the people with usury and count as their own the fish in the stream, the bird of the air, and the grass of the field, and Dr Liar says  “Amen!” What courage has he, Dr Pussyfoot, the new pope of Wittenberg, Dr Easychair, the basking sycophant? He says there should be no rebellion because the sword has been committed by God to the ruler, but the power of the sword belongs to the whole community. In the good old days the people stood by when the judgement was rendered  lest the ruler pervert justice, and the rulers have perverted justice. They shall be cast down from their seats. The fowls of the heavens are gathering to devour their carcasses.

It was in this sort of temper that Thomas Müntzer came to Mülhausen and began fomenting a local peasants’ war. In April 1525, Müntzer set up, in the church he had been called to in Mühlhausen, a long, white silk banner bearing a rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant and the motto, The Word of the Lord Abideth Forever. Under this, he began to preach:

Now is the time, if you be only three wholly committed unto God , you need not fear one hundred thousand. On! On! On! Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry! Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! On! On!

He announced that he would shortly be marching out under this standard at the head of two thousand ‘strangers’ (real or imaginary members of his league). At the end of the month, he and Pfeiffer did take part in a marauding expedition in the course of which a number of monasteries and convents were destroyed; but this was not yet, by any means, the apocalyptic struggle of which he dreamed. In a letter which he sent to his followers at Allstedt can be recognised the same tone that was once used by John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt of a century and a half previously:

I tell you, if you will not suffer for God’s sake, then you must be the Devil’s martyrs. So take care! Don’t be so disheartened, supine, don’t fawn upon the perverse visionaries, the godless scoundrels! Start and fight the Lord’s fight! It’s high time. Keep all your brethren to it, so that they don’t mock the divine testimony, otherwise they must all be destroyed. All Germany, France and Italy are on the alert. The master wants to have sport, so the scoundrels must go through it. The peasants in Klettgau and Hegau and in the Black Forest have risen, three thousand strong, and the crowd is getting bigger all the time. My only fear is that the foolish fellows will let themselves be taken in by some treacherous agreement, simply because they haven’t yet seen the harm of it…

Stir up the people in villages and towns, and most of all the miners and other good fellows who will be good at the job. We must sleep no more! … Get this letter to the miners! … 

At them, at them, while the fire is hot! Don’t let your sword get cold! Don’t let it go lame! Hammer cling, clang, on Nimrod’s anvil! Throw their tower to the ground! So long as you are alive you will never shake off the fear of men. One can’t speak to you about God so long as they are reigning over you. At them, at them, while you still have daylight! God goes ahead of you, so follow, follow!

This letter shows in what fantasies Müntzer was living, for Nimrod was supposed to have built the Tower of Babel, which in turn was identified with Babylon; and he was popularly regarded not only as the first builder of cities but as the originator of private property and class distinctions, as the destroyer of the primal, egalitarian State of Nature.And to his summons to cast down Nimrod and his tower Müntzer adds a whole series of references to apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible: the prophecy of the messianic kingdom (Ezekiel xxxiv), Christ’s prophecy of his Second Coming (Matthew xxiv), the prophecy of ‘the Day of Wrath’ (Revelation vi), and, of course, ‘Daniel’s dream’. All this shows how completely, even at this late stage in Müntzer’s mission, the assumptions on which he worked and the terms in which he thought were still prescribed by the eschatological tradition. He was assuming the role of the messianic saviour.

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At the same time as Müntzer and Storch, the latter recently expelled from Zwickau were preparing their followers for the Millennium, Luther was composing his ferocious pamphlet, Against the thievish, murderous gangs of the peasants. This work did much to arouse the princes of central Germany, who had so far shown far less resolution than those in the south and west. Frederick the Wise was weary, unwilling to act against the peasants, and on the point of death when he wrote to his brother John:

Perhaps the peasants have been given just occasion for their uprising through the impeding of the Word of God. In many ways the poor folk have been wronged by the rulers, and now God is visiting his wrath upon us. If it be his will, the common man will come to rule; and if it be not his will, the end will soon be otherwise. Let us then pray to God to forgive our sins, and commit the case to him. He will work it out according to his good pleasure and glory.

Brother John, for his part, yielded to the peasants in his territory the right of the government to collect tithes. He wrote back to Frederick, declaring,… as princes we are ruined. The old Elector died on 4 May and brother John succeeded him. Luther had tried to dyke the deluge by going down into the midst of the peasants to remonstrate with them, but he was met with derision and violence. It was then that he decided to write his tract in which he claimed that all hell had been let loose and all the devils had gone into the peasants, and the archdevil was in Thomas Müntzer, who does nothing else but stir up robbery, murder and bloodshed. A Christian ruler like Frederick the Wise should, indeed, search his heart and humbly pray for help against the Devil, since our warfare is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual wickedness. The prince should, indeed, exceed his duty in offering terms to the mad peasants, as John had done. If they declined, he must quickly grasp the sword. He had no use for Frederick’s plan to sit still and leave the outcome to the Lord, preferring the more pro-active approach of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who claimed if I hadn’t been quick on my toes, the whole movement in my district would have been out of hand in four days. In his tract, Luther wasted no words in setting out how the princes should deal with those peasants who rejected their terms:

If the peasant is in open rebellion , then he is outside the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land full of murders and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down like a great disaster. 

Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab , secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don’t strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you.

Some of the princes were only too ready to smite, stab and slay; and Thomas Müntzer was only too ready to provoke them. Duke George, the new Elector John and other princes called for help from the Landgrave Philip, a young man scarcely twenty years of age, but already with a considerable reputation as a military commander, who had just put down the uprising in his own territories. He marched at once to Thuringia and headed for Mühlhausen, which the princes agreed as being the centre of the whole Thuringian insurrection. Müntzer and the peasants, eight thousand strong, had formed themselves into an army at nearby Frankenhausen. They sent word to the princes that they sought nothing but the righteousness of God and desired to avoid bloodshed. The princes replied that if they delivered up Thomas Müntzer, the rest of them would be spared. But they had already turned to Müntzer as their saviour, who seems to have chosen Frankhausen as a rallying point because it was close to the castle of his old arch-enemy, Ernest of Mansfeld. They now called him to take his place among them, and Müntzer was quick to answer their call. He set out from Mühlhausen with some three hundred of his most fanatical followers. The number was significant because it was with the exact same number that Gideon overthrew the Midianites. He arrived at the peasants’ camp on 11th May. On his arrival he spoke out: Fear not, Gideon with a handful discomfited the Midianites and David slew Goliath.

He then ordered the peasants from the surrounding villages to join the army, threatening that they would otherwise be brought in by force. He also sent an urgent appeal to the town of Erfurt for reinforcements and threatening letters to the enemy. Clearly, he was not going to give himself up. He wrote to Count Ernest of Mansfeld in particularly vitriolic terms:

Say, you wretched, shabby bag of worms, who made you a prince over the people whom God has purchased with his precious blood?… By God’s almighty power you are delivered up to destruction. If you do not humble yourself before the lowly, you will be saddled with everlasting infamy in the eyes of all Christendom and will become the devil’s martyr.

But neither of his missives had much effect. Erfurt either could not or would not respond, and the princes took advantage of the delay to surround the peasant army. By the 15th May, Philip of Hesse’s troops had been joined by those of all the other regional princes and had occupied a strong position on a nearby hill overlooking the peasant army. Although somewhat outnumbered, the princes also had ample artillery, whereas the peasants had very little. They also had about two thousand cavalry, whereas the peasants had none. A battle fought under such circumstances could have only one possible result, but the princes again offered terms, requiring the handing over of Müntzer and his immediate following. The offer was made in good faith, as the princes had already avoided unnecessary bloodshed elsewhere, following Luther’s advice. The offer would probably have been accepted, had it not been for Müntzer’s intervention.

The propheta made a passionate speech in which he declared that God had spoken to him directly and promised him victory; that he himself would catch the enemy’s cannonballs in the sleeves of his cloak; that in the end God would transform heaven and earth rather than allow his people to perish. Just at that moment, a rainbow appeared in the sky, the very symbol on Müntzer’s banner, as if to prove that God would keep his covenant. Müntzer’s fanatical followers were convinced that some tremendous miracle was about to transpire and were somehow able to convince the confused, amorphous and relatively leaderless mass of peasantry of this.

Having received no reply to their terms, the princes grew impatient and the order was given to the artillery to fire the cannon in an opening salvo. The peasants had made no preparations to use their cannon, nor to escape the field. Seemingly in a mass trance and still singing, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, they seemed to be expecting the Second Coming at that very moment. The effect of the salvo was devastating, with the peasants breaking ranks and fleeing in panic while the princes’ cavalry ran them down and slaughtered them. Losing just half a dozen men, the army of the princes dispersed the peasants and captured Frankenhausen, killing some five thousand peasants in the process. Only six hundred were taken prisoner, so perhaps another two thousand somehow escaped. A few days later, Mühlhausen surrendered without a struggle and was made to pay heavily for its part in the general insurrection, also losing its status as a free imperial city. Müntzer himself escaped from the battle-field but was soon found hiding in a cellar in Frankenhausen. He was handed over to Ernest of Mansfeld, tortured, made to sign a confession, after which he was beheaded in the princes’ camp, along with Pfeiffer, on 27 May. Storch died as a fugitive later in the same year. The princes continued to ‘clean up’ the countryside.

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Other bands of peasants were also savagely put down. The forces of the Swabian League were led by a general who, when outnumbered, would have recourse to diplomacy, duplicity, strategy and, when necessary, combat. He managed to isolate the bands and destroy them one at a time. The peasants were tricked and finally outnumbered themselves. It was claimed that over a hundred thousand were massacred altogether. Although they were not exterminated as a class, the hopes of the peasants for a share in the political life of Germany were at an end, at least for the following three centuries.

Luther’s savage pamphlet was late in leaving the press and appeared just at the time when the peasants were being butchered. But the tract was noticed by them, and the set of phrases, smite… stab… slay… were never forgotten by them. He tried to counter the effect by another pamphlet in which, though he held to his original conviction over the consequences of rebellion, he criticised the princes for their failure to show mercy to captives and their venting of vengeance on the countryside, in which the bishops also took part. Despite Luther’s stance, hundreds of ‘Lutheran’ ministers throughout Germany took part in the war on the peasants’ side. The rulers of Catholic lands thereafter used this participation as a reason to exclude evangelical preachers from their lands. Luther himself became less tolerant of radical preachers, lest some of them might turn out to be little Müntzers in disguise.  Nevertheless, his support for the princes in the peasants’ war led to others becoming Lutheran and to the repeal of the edicts against him at the Diet of Speyer in 1526.

Though there were elements of a puritan movement on the side of the peasants, a clear divide had opened up among Lutherans whose goal was to establish a territorial church, and the few who were prepared to sign up to a more radical congregationalism more biased towards the poor. The battle lines in both church and society, in both material and spiritual life, had been clearly drawn. The Peasants’ War had been a war in the sense of a series of battles and stand-offs in which the peasants in some areas won some concessions from the princes. Apart from the Twelve Articles, some of which were connected with church reform, there was no agreed manifesto which could be referred to as a revolutionary platform or programme. That was something that some later historians, looking for a legacy, gave to the uprisings. Millenarian movements grew up in parallel and took advantage of the general mood of unrest, rather than directing or leading it in any coordinated way.

(to be continued…)

 

 

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