Moral panics: a woodcut depicting the execution of King Charles I © Look and Learn/Bernard Platman Antiquarian Collection/Bridgeman Images

The (first) post-Elizabethan age

In England, the 17th century was a time of war, regicide and demon dogs. A new book valiantly tries to cover it all—but makes some crucial omissions
January 25, 2023
The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England
Jonathan Healey (RRP: £30)
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In 2023, Britain embarks on the adventure of a new king, one who takes over from a queen who was on the throne for a record-breaking period. With apprehension, with expectation, we await events. To be sure, the new king is already beset by criticism, including from his nearest and dearest. But if Charles III were to look back to the advent of James I, who also succeeded a long-serving Elizabeth, he would likely find the experience discouraging. Jonathan Healey’s book, The Blazing World, offering a new history of revolutionary England in the 17th century, illustrates how uneasily any new king settles upon the throne.

While there have been a few attempts to tell the tale of Britain’s revolutions in a manner accessible to the general reader, Healey takes a new line by covering the post-Restoration restiveness and, ultimately, the so-called Glorious Revolution, as well as the reigns of James I and others, in a single volume. He has done extraordinary work in synthesising those academic books on the subject that he considers salient. It’s one man’s choice, and perhaps all the better for that; what seems to guide Healey is the extent to which he finds particular historians inspirational. John Adamson’s self-limiting idea of a noble revolt keeps jagged company with a narrative of popular unrest and reordered social classes, as well as ideas of both religious war and constitutional crisis.

For some reason, this approach aroused the inner dragon of my Oxford examining-brain. I kept wanting to ask awkward questions about the argument, about terminology, about methodology. Only in the last section of the book, its epilogue, does Healey offer something like an account of what we have read and why it matters, yet it’s profoundly unsatisfactory. The most revolutionary thing, he explains, is that politics “was really no longer about monarchs”. Immediately, he offers a caveat: he tells us that the personalities of kings and queens still mattered, and that the role of the aristocracy remained important, but that “the political story” was now driven by the House of Commons and people holding smaller, local offices. Does this mean that there was really no need, in the 19th century, for Chartism or the Reform Acts?

Healey also wants to argue that the 17th century led to more class mobility, although he doesn’t quite say that, satisfying himself with instances of people who rise from the gentry to the aristocracy. I’m sure he knows that this happened a lot in previous centuries; the same stories could be told about the 16th century: Wolsey, Drake, Raleigh, Thomas More, Elizabeth Cary. Perhaps we should face the possibility that all that bloodshed and heartache didn’t make as much difference as we might have hoped.

What does change—effectively twice across the century—is the gender of the monarch and the way he or she presents him or herself. Hope was attached to James and his accession because he was a king and not a queen. It would be fair to say that there was a legitimation crisis induced in part by Henry VIII and his insistence on a male heir. He was succeeded by his son—only a child, and therefore not properly masculine—and then by his two daughters. Elizabeth’s failure to name an heir drew attention to the problem of her body, which had not produced the continuity sought. When she was replaced by James, a foreigner from Scotland and bisexually devoted to both his wife and his favourites, the problems intensified, culminating in the death of James’s heir and the accession of his disabled second son, who was incapable of exemplifying that time’s ideals of a masculine monarch, despite an enormous number of children.

Ironically, it was Oliver Cromwell, the man who led the republican regime after the Civil War, who successfully exemplified the characteristics the English looked for in a king: battlefield success, a macho presence and short shrift for anything courtly. A big part of anti-popery was the idea that Catholics are feminine, in thrall to the whore of Babylon, prone to sodomy and to wearing pretty dresses.

Collective nouns of disorder do a great deal of heavy lifting in Healey’s book. We hear about outcry, protest, riots. One crisis after another ensues. One furious ruler gives way to the next. What makes it difficult is that the state somehow holds together. At about the midpoint of the narrative, the possibility emerges that this glitchy, aggressive system was the norm, and that the eventual total breakdown into civil war was caused by impatient efforts to make things work better.

Like the vast majority of historians, Healey tends to assume the key participants are rational actors, rather than people driven by fears and fantasies. For political historians, the tendency is to frame anything that sounds a little crazy as strategic, but it is a struggle to see how 10,000 citizens might rationally have decided that bishops were responsible for “the swarming of lascivious, idle and unprofitable books”, or how the House of Commons could later accept the Popish Plot—the fantasy that an extensive conspiracy of Catholics was plotting to murder Charles II—on reasonable grounds. It would be more accurate, although still an exaggeration, to say that the era that Healey describes was driven by contesting moral panics, in which normally rational individuals such as Charles I—ahem—lost their heads completely.

Relevant to this are the prevalence of witch accusations in East Anglia, ghost sightings on the field of Edgehill, and crazy rumours about imminent invasions by Catholic powers. The East Anglia witch trials get a few pages of thoughtful attention, but we don’t really learn why they happened. Were they a rebellion? A reaction? Is it worth considering them in relation to the prevalent idea that the dog owned by Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I, was a demon?

One of the book’s strongest sections is a searing account of the disaster that overtook the English countryside’s inhabitants. In large, open areas, such as the eastern half of England, fields farmed cooperatively by villagers were fenced off by landlords and replaced with individual plots. Meanwhile, the courts that had previously mediated relations between tenants and landlords—helping with land-sharing and preventing exploitation—were rendered powerless. The combined result was to force tenants into competition with one another. By breaking up the labouring class in this way, the ruling class had ensured that envious attention was focused on the next richest peasant, not on themselves.

A king in all but name: Oliver Cromwell leading  cavalry at Marston Moor © Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum/Bridgeman Images A king in all but name: Oliver Cromwell leading cavalry at Marston Moor © Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum/Bridgeman Images

A king in all but name: Oliver Cromwell leading cavalry at Marston Moor © Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum/Bridgeman Images

Healey’s previous book, on the poor and provision for them in the 16th and 17th centuries, was excellent preparation for this welcome attention to economic factors. However, some of his economic conjectures are not fully assessed: the idea that the reason for inflation lay simply in population growth neglects the enormous impact of the Spanish empire in the Americas on Europe’s money supply. We also hear nothing of the effect of the Little Ice Age on rural productivity, although it has been argued by others that the worsening climate was critical to the fermentation of rebellion and even to the persecution of witches. Obviously, there was little that the ruling class could do about either of these influences.

Healey offers a well-told account of the Civil War itself and the negotiations that accompanied it. His attention to the latter is particularly strong; those in search of a blow-by-blow military history should probably look elsewhere. But, arguably, it’s the way that the war affected political thinking that preoccupies Healey and allows him to offer an attractive account of how rebellious beliefs fomented in the army, culminating in the Putney debates of 1647, in which senior officers and agitators argued over England’s constitutional future and whether or not that future should involve a monarch. Unlike most historians of the war, Healey clearly finds Cromwell just as problematic as Charles, perhaps more so. To adapt the majestic words of 1066 and All That: neither is Right, and both are Repulsive.

The most illuminating section of the book is devoted to something that is often neglected by other historians: the Restoration and why it happened. Generally portrayed as simply exhaustion with militant Puritanism, it is here understood as a coup against Cromwell’s likeable son, Richard. He was deposed, and the old Rump Parliament recalled; although this parliament proved to be profoundly unpopular, so it was General Monck who took up the unenviable task of bringing about some sort of order. Eventually, a new parliament agreed that the government “is and ought to be by King, Lords, and Commons”—the inclusion of the K-word signifying the restoration of a monarch, King Charles II, to the throne. Rather naïvely, Healey reports that “London rejoiced, as did the rest of the country”. Can we truly rely, in this case, on the testimony of one Samuel Pepys?

Like the vast majority of historians, Healey tends to assume the key participants are rational actors, rather than people driven by fears and fantasies

The fact that the new king was obliged to issue a proclamation against those who “revile and threaten others” suggests that the harmony was not universal, and Healey himself cites some dissident voices, but insists that they were in a minority. The fact is that we cannot know what the majority of people in this period actually thought about the return of the king.
However, it is in this section that the book breaks down into something very like a chronicle; of course the Great Plague was a major event, but was it a major political event? What did Robert Hooke’s discoveries in Micrographia have to do with politics? What about the scientific curiosity of the polymathic noble Margaret Cavendish? Her visit to the Royal Society is described in patronising terms, and apparently left her lost for words. If there’s one thing we can be sure of in an era of uncertainty, it is that Cavendish was never lost for words. This diminution of Cavendish is especially strange given that the title of Healey’s book is lifted from her extraordinary 1666 fantasy-fiction work. A testy reviewer might think of the word “appropriation”.

What’s more, we don’t hear much about the way that parliament fully excluded women—and, indeed, the way that gender was weaponised in parliamentarian rhetoric and in popular protest. Both before and after the Restoration many women writers were royalists, Jacobites and then Tories, a fact that is awkward for Healey and his political narrative. Nor does he note the enormous improvement in the lives of most women brought about by the Restoration.

Additionally, there is practically no discussion of slavery or indigenous peoples. In the context of a book about the way that minor protests turn into a major rebellion, this feels less like an oversight and more like an injustice.

The Blazing World is a courageous and frequently engrossing attempt to revive the fortunes of 17th-century history as created by Christopher Hill in his The World Turned Upside Down (among other books), before the advent of what David Starkey has pooh-poohed as “feminised” history. The Civil War always was a bit of a boys’ club; turning it back into one is unlikely to attract new readers. Healey’s case would be much stronger if he were willing to discuss how much better royalism was for better-off women, and also if he were willing to moderate his enthusiasm for prosperity by acknowledging that the mercantile empire succeeded by finding new groups of people to exploit.

Still, by tackling an enormous range of history with vim and intelligence, he has provided all of us with a lot to talk about. Is he, for example, correct to call the events of 1688 the last revolution? As we look with wonder at the turmoil in the present royal family, might this statement be a hostage to fortune?